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Vicious Cycle

It's not hard to see that the Republican Party has problems -- and to understand why.

Just over three months ago, the GOP took a beating in the midterm elections, losing the majorities it had held for 12 years in the House and 11 of the past 12 years in the Senate. President Bush's approval ratings are abysmal, locked in the low 30s. If his numbers drop much lower, they will rival those of President Nixon just before he was forced from office.

Making matters even worse for the Republicans, a recent Gallup report, based on an aggregation of the firm's 2006 polls, found a larger percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Democrats than in any year since 1999, and a smaller percentage calling themselves Republicans than in any year since 2000.

In Gallup's 30,655 interviews last year, Democrats had a party affiliation edge of 3.9 percentage points: 34.3 percent of respondents called themselves Democrats, 30.4 percent labeled themselves Republicans, and 33.9 percent identified themselves as independents.

When independents were "pushed" -- that is, asked which party they leaned toward -- the Democratic advantage ballooned to 10.2 points: 50.4 percent to 40.2 percent for Republicans. That's the biggest advantage either party has enjoyed since Gallup began pushing leaners in 1991 -- and it is significant. Leaners tend to end up voting for the party they tilt toward almost as consistently as do voters who say they belong to that party.

Republicans can take some solace from the fact that the next national election -- when they might have a chance to turn things around -- is less than 21 months away. But the political environment is so hostile and Republicans have been in such a funk that the GOP could wind up hurting itself still more in the run-up to the 2008 House and Senate elections.

Simply put, if a sizable number of GOP incumbents become pessimistic about their party's chances of reclaiming its majorities or if they conclude that getting beaten at the polls next year is a real possibility, we might see a disproportionate number of Republican retirements.

If the GOP is forced to defend a large number of open seats, its chances of making a successful comeback in 2008 will get even worse. Beyond the issue of wholesale retirements, voters' anti-Republican mood could make it difficult for the party to recruit high-quality candidates and to raise money for individual campaigns and party committees.

If this sounds like a vicious cycle, that's because it is. A hostile political environment often results in a rash of retirements, tougher recruiting, and poor fundraising -- all of which feed the pessimism that can lead to still more retirements, even more-dismal recruiting, and anemic fundraising. Around and around it goes.

Obviously, this picture could still change. But what could change it? Congressional Republicans had counted on the Democrats to self-destruct, but so far the Democrats have proven to be cautious and measured. The "San Francisco liberal" Nancy Pelosi whom Republicans expected to lead her party off an ideological cliff has not been the Speaker Pelosi running the House.

What's more, the situation in Iraq is unlikely to improve greatly. While one might argue that a surge of 40,000 or 60,000 troops two or three years ago might have accomplished something in nine months to a year, one has to be an incurable optimist to think that adding 21,500 troops now will make a huge difference over the next six months. And the patience of the American people, and even of Republicans in Congress, is fast running out.

Perhaps the Republicans' best hope is that Democrats will get cocky enough over the next year and a half that they will end up overreaching -- making the sort of mistakes that Republicans had counted on from the start. The biggest threat to Democratic control is overconfidence. If Democrats lose their majorities in 2008, it may well be because they defeated themselves, not that the weakened, dispirited GOP found a way to beat them.

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