Meet The Press
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Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.
updated 10/17/2006 3:01:12 PM ET 2006-10-17T19:01:12

They are calling them “pre-mortems” — explanations in advance for what are expected to be Republican losses in the midterm elections next month. I heard a fascinating “pre-mortem” over dinner the other night from no less a personage than Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

It went roughly as follows: The Democrats are running against George Bush and the Iraq war. To the extent that they succeed, it will largely be because of the president’s low job-approval numbers — which are at rock bottom mostly because voters can’t see that he is leading us in a new and “different kind of war, an insurgent war” against Islamic fascists. The last president to lead us “for the first time in a different kind of war” was President Harry Truman. The war was the Korean War, which started in the summer of 1950, and which was going badly that fall. “People thought at the time that the Korean War was a failure,” Mehlman said. “Now we look back and see that it was an incredibly important success.” It defined the Cold War, a war America won.

Mehlman insisted to me that the Republicans would hang onto both the House and the Senate. He may be right: he is the best in the business at what he does, which is organize election campaigns.

But if Bush=Truman and Iraq=Korea, then the GOP is in for a drubbing next month. In the midterm elections of 1950, the president’s party, the Democrats, lost 29 House seats and six Senate seats. Eerily, those numbers are in the plausible upper reaches of the Beltway consensus about the amount of seats Republicans will lose on Nov. 7.

Mehlman is a tough, unsentimental guy — a stickler for detail who is also eager to deal in big ideas and big issues. Not yet 40, a graduate of Harvard Law School, he got his political training in Texas as a protégé of Karl Rove.

Mehlman has been “Karl Rove’s Karl Rove” for nearly a decade: tinged, though not singed, by controversy — and yet was voted “Campaign Manager of the Year” by fellow political consultants for his handling of Bush-Cheney in ’04.

Now he has the unenviable fate of being in the limelight in the sixth year of a presidency (always a tough time to defend the president’s party) in the midst of an unpopular war.

What’s his theory for GOP survival?

Stabbing furiously at thick slabs of Ahi tuna, Mehlman laid out the national themes, which boil down to The Three Ts: Terrorists, Tax Cuts and Traditionalist judges.

The idea is to suggest stark “choices” on all three, beginning with a White House signing ceremony for the new legislation that governs the interrogation and trial of “detainees” accused of terrorism.

“Do we have an interrogation program against guys like Khalid Sheik Mohammad or do we not?” he asked rhetorically. “Do we have a Patriot Act or not? Do we have surveillance? Do we have missile defense? A whole series of things that don’t involve Iraq.”

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As for Iraq, he said, the aim is to ask Democrats whether they “want another Taliban-like Afghanistan between Syrian and Iran. Is that acceptable?”

Of course many Democrats support tough measures — including the new detainee-interrogation law, and even some Republicans have doubts about that new law. As for the question of who made Iraq vulnerable to becoming another pre-war Afghanistan, many experts would argue that WE did by invading the country.

On taxes, the idea is to quote the anti-tax-cut statements of Rep. Charlie Rangel, the Democrat from New York who stands in line to become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. And the third point is judges. "You want to talk about Sam Alito and John Roberts being on the Supreme Court? We do, but you were against them….”

The Democrats’ strategy, he said, is clear: to run against “Bush, Iraq and corruption.” “I believe we will hold the House and the Senate,” he said as he finished his tuna and prepared to hurry off to Florida (to Mark Foley’s old district). “Last week we had a horrendous week,” he said. “So far this week has been pretty good.”

It was Monday night.

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