It's been humorously suggested that Barack Obama's landslide 70-to-27 percent victory against Alan Keyes in the Illinois 2004 U.S. Senate race had one minor silver lining for Republicans. After that blowout, they knew exactly how big their core, crawl-across-broken-glass-to-vote-GOP base was in the Prairie State.
With President Bush's approval ratings hovering in the high 20s to low 30s, you might think that the Iraq war has helped identify the size of the die-hard-Republican base nationallydespite an economy that has expanded at a 3.5 percent annual pace during the past three years and added more than 6 million new jobs.
But what if, along with foreign-policy troubles, Bush was hit by an economic downturn? Last week's stock market plunge and a string of weak economic reports have sure upped that possibility in many people's minds. And if you think that is the last thing Team Bush needs to deal with right now, aspiring GOP presidential candidates are probably thinking the same thing.
As it is, the betting marketsthough not the public-opinion pollsare hinting at an overwhelming Democratic win in 2008. Would a recession make 2008 a fait accompli for Dems? Earlier today, I asked two veteran Washington watchers that very question. Here is what they told me, via E-mail:
Gregory Valliere, chief strategist at Stanford Washington Research:
"The conventional wisdom would be that a recession would make a tough race even tougher for the GOP nominee. There's already a boatload of burdens for any Republican nominee, and a recession would be a major albatross. But . . . Republicans usually have the upper hand on taxes. The least publicized major economic story in the U.S. is the plunging budget deficit (a surplus is possible next year), and the reason for this is a remarkable surge in receipts. Fearless forecast: Some economists will begin talking about "fiscal drag," a tax burden that's taking too big a bite. So a clever Republican, perhaps the tax-cutting Giuliani, might tell the public that an increasingly confiscatory tax burden has led to a recessionand that the best path toward recovery would be tax cuts. Some stimulus just might do the trick. McCain is a traditional "root canal" Republican on deficits, in favor of deep spending cuts and apparently ambivalent on some tax cuts. But even he (and Romney) could play the tax issue to their advantage."
Charles Gabriel, senior political analyst, Prudential Equity Group:
"In my view, voter antipathy generated by a recession would certainly seem likely to enhance the Democrats' already outsized chances of retaking the White House in 2008. The Democrats might be seen as too new to the majority to be fairly blamed as incumbents. And the tag line for the party (as evidenced from recent criticisms by Senator Clinton) might be that the Bush/Republican White House 'couldn't manage a war they led us into under false pretenses, and couldn't protect U.S. economic sovereignty as a result of budget and trade deficits that ballooned on their watch.' "