- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2005

I was on CNN the other day and I was asked if, because of the war in Iraq, high gas prices, HurricaneKatrina,Tom DeLay and a few real ethical lapses, I thought the Republican Party had a “perception problem?” My answer was an unequivocal “Yes.” The next day, I was at an event attended by some fellow Republicans. Two came up to me and said I should not have admitted that we have a problem on the air. My response was I didn’t think the “ostrich strategy” was going to get us a lot of votes come 2006 and 2008.

Privately, I have lost count of the number of Republicans who have come up to me in the last two years and said, “We have become what we defeated in 1994.” Leaving aside the usual suspects in the Democratic Party and the media who trash the party by rote, there is now a large number of rank-and-file Republicans who look at their elected officials and see an arrogance of power and a sense of entitlement. If they do, why wouldn’t the American people? I happen to be someone who strongly believes that President Bush has it absolutely right on Iraq. Revisionist history and irresponsible journalism aside, we went into that country for the right reasons, and leaving is no longer an option. That’s what I believe. Perception, however, is another matter — one that the Republican Party ignores to its own detriment.

As with Katrina, the media can pound the president with negative story after negative story on any subject, and then, after saturating the newspapers and airwaves with shaded or even outright falsehoods, they themselves (I thought the Soviet Union had collapsed?) will take a poll and gleefully announce that the president’s numbers are in a freefall. As Republicans, we can whine all we want about such tactics, but that’s the reality we must deal with.

Let’s look at the conduct of the media with regard to Katrina. Rather than act like the journalists they are paid to be, many became echo chambers for the failed and disgraced mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin. Even though it was his responsibility to evacuate his city, and even though it was his responsibility to have adequate water, food and security at the Superdome and the convention center, many in the media chose to ignore that fact of life and simply parrot his ridiculous claims of potentially 20,000 people being dead and his assertion that it was all the federal government’s fault that he was incompetent and couldn’t do his job.

No balance, no fact-checking, no professionalism. Too many in the media acted like the public-relations firm for the mayor and governor of Louisiana and proceeded to rip President Bush and his response to the hurricane — a response, which, if truth be told, was not only timely, but historic in its scope and compassion.

The media did not and will not tell that story. My answer to my fellow Republicans is, “So what. Get over it.” Even though it’s wrong, tens of millions of Americans now believe that the Republican Party, the party that controls the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, dropped the ball on everything from Katrina to Iraq to gas prices.

The truth that the vast majority of Republicans in Congress are highly ethical does not matter. Perception says otherwise. Of course, it would have helped if some in the Republican leadership had publicly condemned Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, after it was learned a defense contractor bought his house for $1.675 million and then sold it later at a loss of $700,000 and that Mr. Cunningham was living on the CEO’s yacht rent-free while another contractor helped him buy a $2 million-plus home.

What I continually pick up from the “nonpolitical” Americans I speak with is that for them, the entire dynamic of politics, and how it impacts their lives, changed forever on September 11, 2001. They now have no patience for inside-the-beltway games, the partisan politics of destruction, or, most especially, the shirking of responsibility. Throw on top of that a media more than willing to spread or create false stories about the Republican Party and you begin to understand our perception problem.

The Republican Party is in trouble at the moment, and if ignored, we face the prospect of devastating losses across-the-board. With regard to the White House, no matter the approval ratings of Mr. Bush — and I believe history will record him as one of our greatest presidents — the American people are suffering from “party-in-power fatigue.” Eight years of any party in power in the White House is more than enough for most Americans. That is all the more reason not to deny the obvious.

To me, the 2006 and 2008 elections can only be about who can best protect our nation from terrorism. I do happen to believe that on the whole, the Republican Party is stronger on national defense than Democrats. It is for that reason I am shocked that some in the party don’t want to take on our perception problem.

For the good of our nation, it’s time to put our dysfunctional house in order. If we don’t, the voters surely will.

Douglas MacKinnon was press secretary to former Sen. Robert Dole and is a former White House and Pentagon official and an author.

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