Even though the evidence against House Majority Leader Tom Delay seems weak (see below), it certainly looks bad that the Republicans’ No. 2 man in the House is under indictment, especially if you couple this with the news that their leader in the Senate, Bill Frist, is being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Delay and Frist may both get cleared, but in politics perception is more important than reality. As news articles have reminded us repeatedly over the past few days, it was ethics violations by the entrenched Democratic leadership that provided the opening for the Republican triumph in the midterm elections of 1994. A few weeks ago, even before the Delay/Frist news, a poll showed only 36 percent of Americans approved of the job the Republican leaders in Congess were doing, compared to 49 percent who disapproved. Within the Republican base, anger among small-government conservatives has reached a boiling point as Republicans fail to insist on offsets to help finance the more than $200 billion of expected Katrina-related spending. Perhaps this will affect turnout in 2006.
While all of this points to Republicans being vulnerable next year, Democrats still have to make major changes to exploit this vulnerability. No matter how unpopular the Republicans are, Democrats must convince a cynical public that their party can do a better job. Yes, Republicans gained power in 1994 in part because of ethics lapses by Democratic leaders. But Republicans also made a positive case for change, embodied in the Contract With America. Democrats oppose Bush’s tax cuts, oppose Social Security reform, oppose the war in Iraq (sometimes), oppose corporate influence, etc. But what are they for? As of now, it doesn’t seem as if they have a clue.