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Cook: Trending 2008

The situation today in Iraq is, politically speaking, devastating for the Republican Party. It has begun to structurally damage the GOP and that damage might have consequences that go beyond just the 2008 general election.   By Charlie Cook, National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

Several years ago, veteran Republican political consultant Eddie Mahe would periodically prepare a memo for his political and public affairs clients.

His memo was a veritable tour de force of international and domestic political, economic, demographic and social situations and trends at the time.

Somewhat like the Federal Reserve Board's "Beige Book," which regularly provides narrative surveys of the economy in each Federal Reserve district, Mahe's memo would take a baseline look at the current situation and outline certain assumptions on each of the various fronts.

The purpose was to re-examine these assumptions three, six or 12 months later and identify changes, if there were any. Mahe kept a lookout for any shifts and then analyzed the political and policy implications of changes that occurred after the baseline assumptions memo was prepared.

While this is the kind of analytical exercise that often causes younger political operatives and observers to roll their eyes in boredom, many more seasoned political aficionados see a value. They know that many of these changes can go unnoticed or be underappreciated, and that these adjustments can have electoral or policy implications.

Obviously, no one knows what the future will hold. No one knows what the situation will be in Iraq just over 19 months from now, when the 2008 general election will be held. Nor can anyone be certain of what the U.S. economy will be like then. Forget 19 months from now -- no one can predict what the situation will yield in three months.

The congressional and presidential campaigns will continue to unfold amid the ever-changing economic and political situation.

What we know now is that the situation today in Iraq is, politically speaking, devastating for the Republican Party. It has begun to structurally damage the GOP and that damage might have consequences that go beyond just the 2008 general election.

Just take a look at shifts in party identification numbers over the last three years, as measured by Gallup. People identifying themselves as Democrats have opened up an advantage over those identifying themselves as Republicans. And when independents who lean toward one party or another are mixed in, the lead Democrats have over Republicans grows to its widest margin since Gallup started measuring party identification in 1991.

If things in Iraq remain as they are today, it's hard to see how Republicans can hold the White House, regardless of their nominee for president. Furthermore, it would be a steep uphill battle for Republicans to recapture the congressional majorities they lost in 2006.

But this also begs the question: What if the situation in Iraq is different? What if the increased U.S. troop presence in Iraq works? While this is exceedingly unlikely, anything is possible.

Or what if various warring factions in Iraq decide to step back and lie low for three or six months, reducing violence and casualties in anticipation that the United States would reduce troop levels significantly and eventually give them free run of the country after the U.S. troops were reduced or gone?

Or what if President Bush relents to public and congressional pressure, and begins reducing U.S. troop levels starting this summer?

While it might not help his popularity much, is it possible that it would relieve some of the political damage that Republicans are sustaining every week now?

As I said, anything is possible. Just because we know where things stand today, and can guess the political implications if things remain the same, it does not mean that we can accurately predict what will happen.

Another potential factor to consider is the state of the U.S. economy. There is considerable evidence that the economy might be slowing. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently said the odds were one-in-three that the U.S. economy would slip into a recession by the end of the year.

If we were to drop into a recessionary situation, or if economic growth drops to 1 percent or less and remains there for a sustained period of time, what would be the political consequences? One would be hard pressed to come up with a scenario where an economic downturn would help Republicans. At its best, the economy will be a neutral factor in the 2008 elections.

But the situation in Iraq has a much wider range of possible outcomes, with most, though certainly not all, being negative for Republican candidates.

While it is true that things could turn around, or Democrats might overplay their hand at the helm of Congress, there is certainly angst among party strategists about the situation. It's not like political observers needed any more reasons why this election campaign is one of the most fascinating in modern history, but all of this just makes the case even more persuasive.