The old poker adage in for a dime, in for a dollar suggests that a hand good enough to bet on is good enough to keep betting on.
For Republicans, there's been one hand good enough to keep betting on, and that's national security. Polls show that no matter how low President Bush may slump, and no matter how far the Republican Congress may bottom out below that, the electorate still sees the GOP as the national security party.
That reduces the GOP's challenge for this fall's elections to one simple task: Make national security the paramount, overriding and transcendent issue.
It worked in 2002, and it worked in 2004. So, if this November looks like the stiffest challenge to Republican control of Congress in a decade, well, that's all the more reason to run the money play one more time.
Violence on the Rise
Events are conspiring right now to do the Republicans' work for them. Deadly bombings in Mumbai could not stay on the front page because successive waves of violence overtook them. Israel's incursion into Gaza was upstaged by Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers — and then by retaliatory air strikes on Lebanon.
The escalating combat in that war-scarred country has dominated the news. Relatively few Americans even saw stories of a horrific marketplace massacre in Baghdad (at least 50 dead, mostly Shiites) and the apparent takeover of two towns in southern Afghanistan by the suddenly resurgent Taliban.
All these setbacks arrived on the heels of other emergent global threats most Americans are still trying to comprehend. These include a stunning gesture of insolence from the North Koreans, who fired a fusillade of missiles to confound and mock the United States on the Fourth of July. But their salvo was no more provocative than the words issuing each week from Tehran, the next prospective nuclear power that is defying the United States not only with its nukes program but with its sponsorship of Hezbollah.
Crafting the GOP Message
All we need now is for an expert in rhetorical flourish like Newt Gingrich to pull it all together with an incendiary phrase. And sure enough, the Republican prophet and former Speaker of the House is delivering on cue: "We are in the early stages of what I would describe as the Third World War," Gingrich told Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press.
It was a variation on a theme Gingrich has peddled to other journalists since Israel starting bombing Lebanon last week. After citing the crises on many fronts in Asia and the Middle East, the would-be presidential contender for 2008 lumped in the recent plotters who were captured in Canada and Miami nursing schemes of mass murder. Clearly, Gingrich said, these events are all of a piece.
President Bush needs to give a speech to the nation and "connect all the dots," Gingrich told David Postman of the Seattle Times this weekend. Gingrich assured him public opinion would be transformed overnight by the World War III language, because it forces the next question to be: "Okay, if we're in the Third World War, which side do you think should win?"
And there it is in a nutshell. The Republican campaign strategy for fall 2006: Call it all a mega-crisis of national security and wave the bloody shirt of 9/11 one more time.
This kind of hawkish talk has worked well — and often — in the past. Many Democrats recall being cast as the peace party in 2004 and 2002, and taking a beating for it both times. Go back two decades and you have Democrats adamantly opposing President Ronald Reagan's aggressive foreign policy in 1984, the year Reagan carried 49 states en route to re-election. Go back another decade and you have Democrats ripping into President Richard Nixon and the Vietnam war in 1972, the year Nixon carried 49 states en route to re-election.
War: The One Big Issue
So you don't have to agree with Gingrich about World War III to see national security and fear as the antidotes for all the GOP's bad polls and divisive issues. It doesn't matter what happened to the Social Security revamp, or the fix for immigration or the bill to permit research on stem cells. Maybe General George Patton said it best way back in World War II: "Compared to war, other forms of human activity shrink into insignificance."
This is the GOP bet, and it's savvy enough. But there is a huge downside if the Republicans bet wrong. The questions they must answer at some point in time are not about visions but results.
Has the war on terror made us safer, or are we dangerously overextended and exposed? Is Afghanistan a success story or a looming failure? Did the invasion of Iraq stabilize the Middle East as promised? Or has it done the opposite, empowering Iran and radical Shi'a throughout the region?
Fear is a great motivator for voters. But at some juncture, the fear generated by 9/11 will be overtaken by other fears. One such successor fear would be that the United States has not responded to 9/11 wisely or effectively. Another would be that we have set in motion a chain reaction leading where we neither wanted nor expected to go.
When these become the greater fears, the Republican strategy will have run its course.