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Straw Men

Des Moines, Iowa — When you start reporting on presidential campaigns, you notice occasional pivotal moments, veritable epiphanies, when everything suddenly snaps into place. I remember, for example, attending the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston, fireworks booming over the press bleachers, while Pat Buchanan thunderously delivered his now infamous culture-war speech, vowing to “take back America block by block, street by street, house by house.” As the crowd mightily roared its approval, I realized right there that poor Poppy Bush didn’t stand a chance of re-election. The Republicans had completely misjudged the national mood. They wanted Kulturkampf when, in fact, it was all about the economy, stupid.

I had the same sort of realization this weekend while attending the circuslike GOP Iowa Straw Poll held right up the road in Ames. For $35 a pop, Republican Party members got to roam the grounds of Iowa State University, wolf down tons of barbecue pork, beans and watermelon provided for free by the various campaigns, sample the live country and rock bands, listen to three hours of speechmaking by the candidates, and then cast a “vote” for their favorite choice. About 14,000 did so. With McCain and Giuliani sitting it out, Mitt Romney spent more than $2 million on the effort and easily won with 32 percent of the vote.

But like Buchanan’s speech 15 years ago, there were two moments during the weekend that, for me, spelled impending doom for the Republicans in the coming election. Romney, looking like he just walked out of a Ralph Lauren layout in Town and Country magazine, began his speech saying: “What brought us here is that change begins in Iowa and change begins today!” But there is no such change being offered by Romney or any of his major rivals. He proceeded to approve and even celebrate every major measure of the Bush administration: uncritical support of the war, the use of abominable interrogation techniques against terror suspects, walling off the southern border, repeal of abortion rights, more tax cuts for the wealthy and privatization of some portion or another of Social Security.

And Romney was the most mainstream of the candidates participating. On his right fringe was the guy who’s now being advised by Pat’s sister Bay Buchanan, none other than Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, the fulminating anti-immigrant xenophobe, who brought with him his small but fervent “Tom’s Army Against Amnesty.” Tancredo’s speech wasn’t surprising in itself — it was his usual mean-spirited rant about militarizing the border, deporting 12 million illegals and saving “our culture.” But there was that special moment when his rhetoric veered into a critique of the war on terror, accusing the pantywaist Pentagon of employing limp-wristed “multicultural rules of engagement” that let the terrorists off easy. “In a Tancredo administration,” he then exclaimed, “there will be only one rule of engagement: We win — you lose!” The ovation was earsplitting, not just from the wing-nut militia he had brought in tow, but from the entire arena of assembled Republicans. At that moment, I knew the GOP fate for ’08 had been sealed. Not so much by that speech, but by how broadly it resonated with the GOP base and by how much all of the candidates are pandering to that base. Just at a time when they have come to represent a very small slice of the electorate.

One shrewd local GOP strategist, Allan Hoffenblum, shares those fears for his own party. “With the exception of Giuliani,” Hoffenblum told me this week, “all the Republican candidates . . . have moved so far to the right, trying to appeal to the so-called base voters, especially on the immigration issue, and just when the Latino vote will be imperative, that there is no easy way they can get any crossover votes come November. I can easily envision a possible Democratic landslide equal to 1964.”

Recent data from Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg won’t assuage Hoffenblum’s fears. In a report issued early this week, he finds, after surveying 4,000 voters, that Democrats are now stacking up historic advantages: They lead by 12 points in a generic presidential race and by 9 points in the congressional field. And that lead cuts across all class lines for the first time in a long stretch. Among “opinion elites” — those with a college education and earning more than $75,000 — the Dems have an 11-point lead. Among families who have someone serving in Iraq, military families, Democrats are ahead 53 percent to 42 percent. And perhaps most significant, among the crucial bloc of independents — the fastest-growing part of the electorate — Democrats are ahead by 19 points in the White House race and 14 in the congressional battle.

All this is good reason for Democrats to stop jerking themselves around with such dead-end ideas as impeachment. Bush and his acolytes have already been dumped by the American people, and, all bromides aside, Democrats are better served thinking about the future — which they are about to inherit — than obsessing over the past. Rather than pushing a motion to indict Bush that would never pass, they ought to be tightly focused on which Democrat is best suited to replace him and, more importantly, what sort of grass-roots pressure can be created and maintained to make sure that Democrat actually follows through.

Finally, good riddance to Karl Rove, most definitely one of the president’s vital organs but certainly not a brain. Thanks to Rove, architect and engineer of one of the greatest presidential catastrophes of modern times, it now feels like the Republicans will be paying the price for his incompetence for a decade to come. The only landslide that will be credited to Rove’s historical account is the one that looks like it will strike in November 2008. The Democrats ought to be grateful to Karl. They could never have done it without him.