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[Albert Hunt] Hubristic Republicans misread political landscape

Sun Tzu’s admonition to know thine enemy is as essential in politics as it is in war.

With Democrats and Republicans locked in a struggle for supremacy, both are guardedly optimistic that currents are blowing their way. In dozens of conversations over the past week or so, while differences emerge among politicians when it comes to their own parties, there’s a consensus about their opponents’ vulnerabilities.

Republicans already are overreaching, Democrats say, badly misconstruing any mandate from last November. The opposition’s presidential field is a historically weak one that will be further impaired by the demands of the political base.

Republicans think Democrats aren’t in sync with a nationwide antigovernment mood. President Barack Obama, saddled with unpopular measures enacted in his first two years and what his foes consider a leadership void, will suffer next year.

Thus, many believe the president is more vulnerable than he appears. (There are exceptions: One Republican senator recently told a colleague from the other side that it’s almost certain Obama will be re-elected and he’d better decide how he’s going to govern, especially with a Republican Congress.)

Most Republicans are convinced the excitement and energy of 2008 have been drained from Democratic constituencies, and independents are turned off by what the potential presidential candidate Newt Gingrich calls Obama’s “spectator-in-chief” role in foreign policy and on domestic spending issues.

The administration, critics say, is reactive on global changes, reflecting a top national security staff selected according to political considerations or personal loyalties to Obama. In the middle of the Egyptian crisis, White House-inspired stories on the infighting between the change forces at the National Security Council and the stability faction led by the secretary of state and the defense secretary were gleefully distributed by opponents; they made the president appear indecisive. Similar stories are emerging about the deliberations around the Libya crisis.

When it comes to the budget battle, congressional Republicans think the White House is fighting on their turf. The question for the 2011 budget isn’t whether to cut, rather how much to cut. When framed that way, Republicans believe they win.

Republicans also see a win-win on a gradually improving economy. The jobless rate on Nov. 6, 2012, is likely to be about 8 percent, the highest Election Day unemployment figure since World War II. Obama will be blamed for that, and any improvement will be attributed by his opponents to the fiscal discipline Republicans imposed.

In the last election, Obama and the Democrats dominated the change mandate and the economic-security issue. That won’t be the case next year, Republican strategists believe.

“The president refuses to be serious on dealing with government spending in general and entitlements in particular,” says John Weaver, a former top campaign aide to John McCain and currently an adviser to Jon Huntsman, a possible Republican candidate next year. “His absence from the playing field has given the Republican Party the high moral ground on one of the key issues heading into 2012.”

Democrats counter that Republicans, intimidated by the Tea Party freshmen, are setting a trap for themselves. Tying extraneous measures like abortion and funding for environmental protection to the basic spending bill may energize the conservative base while turning off swing voters.

Moreover, when the issue turns to longer-term deficits, Republicans could have a bigger problem. “I don’t know how they’re going to put together a budget,” says Jack Lew, head of the Office of Management and Budget, noting that so far, the party has produced few serious long-term deficit-reducing measures.

Any plan will have to focus heavily on entitlement cutbacks, since Republicans have taken tax increases off the table. “When voters weigh cutting Medicare or killing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy,” says Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, “it’s not a hard choice. Republicans are setting themselves up to be pretty seriously on the wrong side of the budget priorities debate.”

As for the Republican presidential field, Democrats can barely disguise their disdain.

“This is an incredibly incoherent group of candidates who haven’t put any of the necessary groundwork or infrastructure in place for a national campaign against a popular incumbent president,” says Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman. He and others think Republican candidates will be forced to cater to a very conservative base on controversial social issues as well as the economy, costing them the support of independent voters.

They revel in the almost daily controversies involving Republicans: Gingrich, rationalizing his sexual affairs, said he misbehaved in part because he cared so “passionately” about the country; former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, charging that Obama derives his policies from his upbringing in Kenya; Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann saying the opening Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord were fought in New Hampshire, or former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin criticizing First Lady Michelle Obama for an anti-obesity campaign.

Former governors who aren’t firebrands, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, are the most likely nominees, Democrats predict. They are divided on Huckabee’s strength, and more than a few say the most formidable candidate, if he could win the nomination, would be Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Most Democratic strategists don’t believe that either Huckabee or Daniels is likely to run.

A few Democrats are smart enough and experienced enough to remember that in politics it sometimes pays to be careful what you wish for. More than 40 years ago, California Democrats were dying for a former actor and political neophyte to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination; he did, and that launched Ronald Reagan’s career. Four years ago, more Republicans hoped against hope that an African-American could knock off the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton; after all, they reasoned, Obama would be easier to beat.

By Albert Hunt

Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.

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