- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2006

And now to the hour when conservatives will either scare the Republicans straight, or send them all to bed with neither a smile nor supper.

The Democrats are eager to throw out the rascals and replace them with rascals of their own, but they can’t do it without the help of conservatives bent on punishing their own.

The pundits and pollsters, eager as always to choose the winners and losers before the voters have their say, reluctantly conclude on the eve of Election Day ‘06 that they’re not absolutely, positively sure that enough conservatives are angry enough. A small but discernible surge seems, maybe, to have put the Republican goal of keeping control of the Senate and maybe the House within the party’s grasp, just.

After driving 2,340 miles from the Middle West down into the Deep South and across to Texas — the usually hawkish Bush heartland — it’s clear to me that there’s remarkable voter ambivalence. After the anger of the election that made the hanging chad the icon of the American democracy, followed four years later by a campaign that transformed anger to bitterness, we’re more divided than ever. The war in Iraq is only part of it.

Democrats have drifted from malevolence to alienation, as if forced to live in a country occupied by a conquering army they neither recognize nor understand. Conservatives feel betrayed, as if the men and women they confidently dispatched to Washington to eliminate the absolute corruption of absolute power turned out to be neither zealots nor reformers, but plunderers in pursuit of pelf and profit.

“Sometimes I’m tempted to vote for the Democrat to teach the Republicans a lesson,” says a soybean farmer in rural Dunklin County, Missouri. “But if you’re hanging the man the lesson you want to teach is wasted on him. Then I think that if the Republicans survive, they’ll figure they were spared to continue their turn at the slop trough. I’ve got hogs with better table manners. I’ll probably decide Tuesday morning.”

The specifics of congressional perfidy are largely lost on the average American, and some of the campaigns will turn on the kind of trivia that professors of political science and pious pundits deplore. Nevertheless, the average American is always smarter than the pols (and the pundits) give him credit for, and can read character in the trivia when the pundits and the professors can’t.

The Republican pols have to worry that voters will punish everyone for the sins of the Class of ‘94 — the 73 new Republican congressmen who came to town promising to shrink the government, balance the budget, disrupt the prevailing “cycle of scandal and disgrace,” and above all not to stay long enough to learn how to be the scam artists they replaced. They quickly saw how much fun it was to be a Democratic congressman and decided that’s what they wanted to be when they grew up. Now they’re grown up, and some of them will pay for it late tonight. Twenty-nine of the 73 are up for re-election; eight have been elected to the Senate or a governor’s office, four left office just ahead of the sheriff (and two of those have visited the prison tailor or soon will), and one died in office. Only eight honored their pledges to serve three terms and go home.

But the traditional Republican campaign mantra — “Vote Republican, we’re not as bad as you think” — actually has more resonance than usual this year. If the Republicans are disappointing, the Democrats are scary. The Nancy Pelosi fright mask was a big seller this Halloween season. If the sight of Nancy wouldn’t make soldiers’ babies cry and dogs scoot under the sofa, the sight of Charlie Rangel, his pockets full of legislation to raise everybody’s taxes, would. Mzz Pelosi will be in Washington tonight so that if the Democrats take over the House the television cameras won’t find her in San Francisco.

It’s tempting to try to read soggy tea leaves, to try to measure the effects of the Foley scandal, the latest John Kerry insult of the troops and the conviction of Saddam Hussein on the 435 races for the House and 33 for the Senate. But the voters have their own unpredictable ways of measuring, with any yardstick they darn well please. Regnat populus, and late tonight some of our pols will be sorry they do.

Pruden on Politics runs Tuesdays and Fridays.

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