As President Bush's approval ratings have dropped dramatically in voter polls, Democrats see the midterms as an opportunity to regain control of Congress and Republicans are distancing themselves from the president. The test case was the special election in California’s 50th District on Tuesday, where Republican Brian Bilbray hoped to fill the seat of convicted former Rep. Randy Cunningham. Bilbray’s opponent was Democrat Francine Busby who ran a relatively strong race. Bilbray won in part he insists by opposing the president on immigration. "The president proposing amnesty was absolutely a big problem," Bilbray said. "In fact, it wasn't until I was able to highlight the fact that I did not agree with my friends in the Senate or my friend in the White House on amnesty that you really saw the polls start supporting me strongly."
Please keep in mind that this district was conservative so regardless of national mood or media spin there was never any real threat for the Republicans losing it.
For the moment there does not seem to be a Democratic wave. Republican strategists were firm in stating that House races were not subject to national moods. Though this must be seen as nothing more than spin there is an even more startling fact: with two years before he leaves office, the president is a lame duck, made impotent by his own Party. This can clearly be seen on the very issue of immigration that helped Brian Bilbray win his seat. This is the issue where conservative politicians and candidates are openly opposed to the president’s plan. With President Bush traveling the nation this week promoting the Senate bill and compromise talks between the Senate and the House versions he has never been seen as more ineffectual than now.
It reminds me of 1979. In 1979 we had an “energy crisis” over oil, we had residual immigration troubles in various states that had welcomed Cuban and Haitian refugees and we had an international crisis with Iran. Most interestingly, out of all the similarities are the political ones. The president and his Party controlled Congress and the Executive, yet the president was seen as unable to control his Party. For all of President Carter’s personal faults in office, most presidential historians agree that not having the full support of his fellow Democrats in Congress was a serious blow to his leadership ability, effecting not only policy but public perception as well.
The very same thing can be described now. It forces one to ask the question, who is in charge, the president as leader of his Party or the Republican Congress? Events as of late would suggest that as President Bush attempts to appease his conservative base the more the conservative base opposes him and as elected Republicans oppose him this undermines Bush’s leadership.
Two questions now are raised. The first is whether or not such a power struggle will adversely affect the Party in the fall elections. The second is with internal divisions temporarily occupying Republican attention, can the Democrat’s find a resonating message, pick their spokespeople, and most of all, stick with them both?