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Matthew Continetti: Republicans should focus on core issues

As you read this, conservatives, tea partiers and Republicans are wildly confident and enthusiastic. They feel the wind at their backs. At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, the guest speakers all foretold major Republican gains, with Dick Cheney confidently asserting that “Barack Obama is going to be a one-term president” and Newt Gingrich telling attendees the GOP would capture Congress in November.

It’s understandable that politicians would want to rally the base with bold predictions of future success. But it is dangerous for Republicans to assume that current political conditions will prevail indefinitely. The midterm elections are months away, and forecasts about the 2012 presidential election are about as useful as reading pig entrails. The wheel may have turned against President Obama in 2009. But that does not mean it won’t turn again.

So Republicans should ignore the boosterism. Dismiss the presumption. Focus instead on the issues that could influence the course of politics for the rest of 2010 – and complicate things for the GOP. Here are two:

Health care – Republicans have benefited enormously from public opposition to the Democratic health care proposal. The liberal Democratic agenda gave rise to the tea party movement, which has infused the GOP with grass-roots energy and a renewed enthusiasm for small government. Republicans point with glee to how Scott Brown turned the special election to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy into a referendum on the health care bill – and Republicans won in Massachusetts for the first time since 1972. They continue to believe that health care will be a major issue in November.

But what if it isn’t? What if the Democrats pass health care reform, putting the issue to rest? Or, perhaps more likely, what if it is defeated, which would also end the debate? In either case, the GOP’s best issue would be off the table. Yes, the public probably will be furious if the Democrats pass a health care bill despite widespread disapproval. But it is hard to sustain such anger for half a year. Politics moves on. The people move on.

Obama’s job approval – When you look at midterm results over the years, you find that presidential job approval matters more than the unemployment rate. Unemployment was low in both 1994 and 2006, but Congress changed hands because at those times Clinton and Bush were unpopular.

Granted, Obama’s job approval wasn’t low in Virginia, New Jersey or Massachusetts, and Republicans won anyway. And among the demographic that is most likely to turn out this fall – older, whiter and more conservative – Obama’s numbers are in the dustbin.

But a major unexpected event that shifts opinion decisively in Obama’s favor – and recasts the turnout picture in November – is not out of the question. Why? Because in a world in which Scott Brown can replace Ted Kennedy, nothing is out of the question.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor of the Weekly Standard and the author of “The Persecution of Sarah Palin.”


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