Serving Gloom With Breakfast

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In the competition among despairing Republicans to sound the loudest alarm about the party’s prospects in the fall elections, retiring Virginia congressman Tom Davis has his eye on the prize. There’s something about retiring that transforms some politicians into non-stop truth-telling machines. Davis, who ran the National Republican Campaign Committee from 1998-2002, appeared before reporters this morning at a Monitor Breakfast. (Monitor Breakfasts are sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. For years they were known as Sperling Breakfasts, after the long-serving Monitor bureau chief, the late Budge Sperling, who created and presided over them for years.) We sent intern Will Schultz to hear what Mr. Davis had to say. Here’s Will’s summary:

-Davis criticized the Republican Party as dogmatic and inflexible. To quote the man himself: “The Democrats want to win…we’d rather be right.” And again: “The Democrats have cracked the code…we still have an admissions test” when it comes to choosing candidates.

-The GOP might suffer another thumpin’ in November. Davis dismissed questions about specific incumbents being in trouble—Mark Kirk and Steve Buyer, for instance—but lamented that Republicans learned nothing from 2006. Their focus on social issues has made the GOP noncompetitive in urban areas, and their failure to be proactive on the economy (“When people pay $4 at the pump, they wanna see some action!”) explains why they can’t get any traction against an unpopular Democratic congress.

-But never fear, Republicans: John McCain is here! OK, maybe I’m exaggerating Davis’s enthusiasm a little. His praise of McCain was Virginia-centric—his status as a veteran will boost turnout in the Tidewater region!—but Davis did seem hopeful that McCain could win over independents come November. He needs to, Davis said, because there isn’t any other way to win: “We can’t win with [just] our base,” he added.

-So how will the election unfold? Apparently, the Democrats are going to focus on…President Bush! No kidding! Davis pointed out that when a president’s approval rating is in the 25%-30% range, it’s a pretty safe strategy to whack him as much as possible. To counter the anti-Bush soundbites, Davis said, McCain needs to fight Obama issue by issue. Right now Obama’s in a “liberal Democratic box,” and if McCain traps him there he can win. Davis’s list of winning issues: taxes, domestic energy production, and “making tough decisions.” Standard GOP fare, mostly, but Davis added that relying on the old playbook alone wouldn’t work; asked if McCain could win by calling Obama a tax n’ spend liberal, Davis simply said “No.” McCain has to add substance to hoary Republican standbys like “Weak on national security!”

-Who should McCain pick for VP? Davis was leery of choosing someone just for the sake of pleasing the conservative base. He would prefer a #2 who could help McCain steal vulnerable bits of Obama’s constituency, groups like Hispanics and former Reagan Democrats. Davis suggested Governors Bobby Jindal and Charlie Crist, and Congresswoman Heather Wilson. Yes, I know Rep. Wilson suffered a narrow defeat in yesterday’s GOP Senate primary in New Mexico. Davis knew it, too, but that didn’t stop him.

Davis’ analysis and advice to McCain are sound enough — with the glaring exception, I think, of the suggestion that Heather Wilson would be a good choice as McCain’s running mate. I see the potential benefit for McCain of picking a woman, especially if he’s going after disaffected Hillary voters. But Wilson, a sixth-term Huose member and military veteran, not only lost a Senate primary in a swing state yesterday; she’s caught up in the scandal involving the firing of U.S. Attorneys around the country by Alberto Gonzales’ Justice Department. Whether or not Wilson did anything wrong, my guess is McCain won’t want a running mate with links to an unresolved Bush Administration scandal.

UPDATE: Reports of Budge Sperling’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The above post erroneously refers to “the late Budge Sperling”, who created and for years hosted the Sperling/Monitor newsmaker breakfasts that are a Washington institution. As David Cook of the Monitor kindly informed me this morning, Budge, 92, retired from breakfast hosting, but he is very much alive and living with his wife, Betty, in Chevy Chase. This was my mistake, not Will Schultz’s, and I apologize to both the Sperlings and to Swampland readers!