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Notes on the State of Politics

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

We've been away for a while, traveling America discussing our new book, A More Perfect Constitution . These book travels were useful for a political analyst in the presidential season. As usual, politics viewed only through the prism of the Beltway bunch is distorted. Herewith some observations gathered on the trail:

One Cheer for Stephen Colbert

We love it that he's trying to run for President, though not for the reason you think. Colbert attempted to file only in South Carolina, though he has been stymied for the moment. The state's Democrats have decided he is not an active campaigner, and therefore denied him ballot status despite his willingness to pay the $2,500 filing fee. Colbert himself balked at the massive $35,000 filing fee charged by the South Carolina Republicans. (Isn't that a bit steep by anybody's standards?)

Now Colbert should re-group and go much further. With the help of his many supporters who watch his late-night comedy show, Colbert should file in as many other states' primaries as possible, and in every state for the general election. He'll get the other two cheers if he does so. We live in a frivolous media age, so this talented buffoon is featured on "Meet The Press" and loads of other allegedly legitimate news shows. At the Crystal Ball, we hope his candidacy will attract millions of votes cast by un-serious voters who might otherwise decide a close election among the major contenders. Who are the un-serious voters? They are the ones who take no time to study the issues, and judge the candidates based on their appearance or name identification or what they saw in an anonymous email.

Let's keep these voters busy, or idle, so they won't be able to foist their thoughtless choices on the rest of us. Perhaps Colbert's fellow political satirists--Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Bill Maher--can be coaxed onto the ballot as well. Millions more un-serious voters will be subtracted from the total, and they will give all the un-serious celebrity "journalists" loads of opportunities to fill their TV slots and news pages all the way to November 2008. Our contribution to the effort is a slogan we hope our late-night hero will adopt: Colbert: He's Just Like You, Only Better.

Election 2007: A Good Night for Democrats--and One GOP VP?

The Kentucky blowout for Democratic Governor-elect Steve Beshear confirmed what the Crystal Ball has been saying since he was nominated in May: this wasn't much of a contest. Governor Ernie Fletcher was probably cooked and done from the moment of his indictment earlier in his term, and Beshear's selection just added to the insurmountable burdens for the Bluegrass State's first GOP chief executive since the early 1970s.

Can Beshear make Kentucky more amenable to the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008? Partly, that depends on the identity of the major party candidates. A liberal Democrat or one who is personally unappealing is not a likely Kentucky winner unless Democrats are enjoying a 1964-style landslide, or an evangelical candidate is taking a sizeable portion of the vote and enabling the Democrat to win with a plurality. However, it will be interesting to see whether Governor Beshear will find a way to target U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (R) in his reelection race in '08. The smart money will be on McConnell, as always, but will a competitive contest be in the offing for a change?

With Governor Haley Barbour's landslide reelection in Mississippi, speculation about a possible VP slot for Barbour will begin in earnest. A northern GOP presidential nominee such as Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney will likely need a Southerner (or maybe a Westerner) on the ticket to pump up the regional base. Barbour is a national figure, well known to Republicans throughout the nation from his service as RNC chairman in the 1990s. Add Barbour to the long list of Veep-potentials.

The Democrats are still on a roll in Virginia. With outright control of the Senate of Virginia secured for the first time since the election of 1991, Democrats will be able to assist Governor Tim Kaine in the final half of his single four-year term. As important, the Democrats now will have a major role in redistricting come 2011. Even if they lose the Governorship in 2009 and fail to take the House of Delegates in the same year, their control of the Senate (assuming no seat changes because of death or resignation before then) gives the party a seat at the table--something they did not have in 2001 when the GOP controlled everything and drew maps for Congress and the state legislature that expanded Republican hegemony.

With big victories under their belt from three consecutive elections (2005 for Governor, 2006 for U.S. Senator, and 2007 for the state Senate), Democrats have proven that Virginia is at least "purplish" for 2008. The right kind of Democrat could win the state's electoral votes--although the wrong kind of Democrat would continue the party's 44-year White House losing streak in the Old Dominion. Can the party's voters figure out which Democrat is which come the winter primaries?

The Congressional Elections: Over Before They Begin?

The small group of us who spend a lot of time rating Senate and House races will have to come to terms with an unsettling reality: The 2008 contests will not be nearly as exciting as 2006. That's because there currently appears to be no significant chance for the Republicans to regain either house of Congress. Yes, we know all the hedges, having invented some of them. Conditions can change overnight; presidential coattails will matter; more retirements can alter the picture; the candidates actually nominated can make districts or states more or less competitive; and so on. But in the Senate, Democrats will have to try hard not to gain at least two or three seats, and they could gain five.

In the House, Democrats are nearly certain not to dip below 218; they are currently at 233, and it is easy to see how they could add a half-dozen to a dozen additional seats. Despite considerable voter unhappiness with the output of the Democratic Congress, there is a clear Democratic drift to the year, powered by the deep unpopularity of President Bush and his Iraq War, plus disproportionate retirements on the GOP side in both houses. We'll have detailed analyses of these contests for you in the coming months. Individual match-ups will prove competitive and fun, but overall we'd be kidding you if we said there is much drama in the '08 congressional picture.

Presidential Picks and the General Election

For now, we will not continue our prior discussions on which candidates in both parties will make the strongest picks for the fall campaign. (Don't worry--we'll return to it in the future.) If the tides are running strongly for one party (and clearly, strong tides are only going to flow Democratic in '08), then the exact identity of the nominees may not matter much. This observation applies only to 2008; the virtues and vices of the new President will have a great deal to do with the results of the great once-a-decade redistricting election of 2010. If a party has chosen its standard-bearer poorly, it will pay the piper then.

Yet for 2008, the Democratic autumn campaign theme is already set: "It's Bush and the Iraq War, Stupid." Democrats will argue that if voters are happy with President Bush, his conduct of the Iraq War (and Katrina and health care and the economy and...) they should vote to keep the White House in Republican hands. The Democratic bet is that a majority will want to turn the page, and that voters will hold Bush's party accountable. It is much tougher to figure out how the Republican will run his race. Certain GOP-leaning issues are obvious, with taxes at the top of the list. No Democrat would renew Bush's tax cuts, and that means big tax increases for some. Defining "some" will be a key pivot point of the issues debate. Beyond that, the Republican nominee's best shot may be in doing something very difficult. No, it's not cutting Bush loose--that will be easy, and any GOP candidate simply has to do it to have a chance of winning. It's in cutting the Republicans in Congress loose.

Since Democrats will keep control of both houses, and probably strengthen their hold on Capitol Hill, the Republican presidential candidate will have to say, "Do you want the Democrats to have it all? Do you trust them on national security, taxes, and spending? Do you remember what happened the last time they had it all (1993-1994)?" The Democratic rebuttals are obvious, but the Republican won't have any choice on this one. He must appeal to Americans' distrust of both parties and the public's desire for as many checks and balances in government as possible.

If any of our observations depress you--and that is not our intention--try to keep it all in perspective. Our sun is one of a hundred million stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and there are 100 million galaxies in the universe. Though mainly yet undiscovered, there are trillions of planets besides our own. Our concerns and our politics are insignificant in the great scheme of things. Somewhere out there is a presidential election that makes sense--and certainly one that has a better organized system of party nomination (with no states named Iowa and New Hampshire). Maybe one day these wiser creatures, preferably not colored Blue or Red, will visit and help us along. If the reports about his encounter with the UFO are true, Dennis Kucinich may already have communicated with them. Let's see what he has to say in the next debate...

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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