Step right up and place your bets on October Surprise, 2006!
What will Republicans trot out this election year? What will be their outrageous attempt to swing the election? What plot is Karl Rove et al. currently hatching to give the GOP an edge?
Remember, the last time we were in this situation (the 2002 midterm election), President Bush demanded a vote from Congress to authorize him to go to war with Iraq. He certainly didn't need it one month before the election (he didn't actually invade for months afterwards) -- but it sure was convenient to force all the Democrats to go on record right before they faced the voters.
So here are ten possible contenders for this year's October Surprise, complete with odds (which I made up out of thin air and moonbeams):
(1) Announce the capture and/or death of Osama Bin Laden. Odds: 10 to 1
A perennial favorite! But if it was going to happen, it probably already would have happened in 2002 or 2004, so it's a relative long shot. Also, we'd have to... you know... catch him....
(2) Gas price relief at the pump for average Americans. Odds: 5 to 1
The problem with this is it would be very hard for the federal government to do. They could flood the American market with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or they could resurrect the "vouchers to pay for gas" program (which was quickly shot down when initially proposed).
Either way, it would run the risk of voters seeing through the manipulation of using the short-term market in a blatant attempt to buy votes. Although odds are good they'll try something along these lines, I don't believe it would be very effective, as people would see through the smokescreen.
(3) Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. Odds: 3 to 2
An early favorite. The neo-cons have been chomping at the bit to do this for years, so it's not so outrageous to conceive of Cheney and Rumsfeld convincing Bush that the time is now.
A variation, call it (3a), would be if Israel carried out the bombing. They proved they're capable when they took out Saddam's nuke facilities a few decades ago. And it would be oh, so convenient to keep our mitts off the actual bombing, for "plausible deniability" reasons. After all, Israel has a perfect ready-made casus belli in the fact that Iran supports Hezbollah. Odds: 3 to 1
Variation (3b) would be forcing Congress to vote on the issue, without actually bombing (yet). Forcing Democrats to vote on it would be a lot easier than actually doing it. Odds: 2 to 1
Variation (3c) is frightening -- the U.S. drops a nuclear bomb on Iran. Although the Bush White House has reportedly been exploring this option, the generals at the Pentagon have reportedly been pushing back hard, so there's a slim chance this will become reality. Odds: 100 to 1 (I hope)
Although all variations to this theme (except the last one) have extremely good odds, one would hope that the Bush folks would -- for once -- consider the likely repercussions. Oil would instantaneously jump to $150-200 a barrel, for instance. And we can't be certain of their ability to see future consequences, given their past track record.
(4) Bombing Syria in support of Israel. Odds: 8 to 1
This would also be a favorite of the neo-con crowd. They've been trying to talk Bush into bombing Syria since about the day after we conquered Baghdad. But the reality is that the Israeli/Lebanese/Hezbollah war will most likely still be at a tense -- but sustainable -- stalemate in October. The neo-cons will likely be frustrated in their ultimate goal of dropping bombs on everyone in the Middle East who doesn't agree with their unalterable vision of the future.
(5) Bombing Ned Lamont's house in Connecticut. Odds: 1000 to 1
Nah, probably not. They'd love to do it, but I just can't see how they could possibly get away with it. Unless it is combined with some form of (9), but even then the odds only drop to 500 to 1.
(6) The GOP brings the troops home from Iraq. Odds: 15 to 1
This is a long shot, but also a plausible possibility. Gary Hart wrote a piece on Huffington Post predicting such a turnabout, and time will tell whether he's right or not.
It's easy to see how it would take place. The Republicans would offer their own plan for withdrawal -- carefully navigating the language it is presented in -- so it appears completely different (New! Improved!) from the "cut and run" Democrats' plans. The words "victory" and "completing the mission" would probably be prominent in such an effort.
Politically, this could be a disaster for Democrats. If the GOP successfully outflanks them on the left (a strange concept, but not one beyond the talents of Karl Rove to successfully spin to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh), the Republicans would be seen as the party who would "bring the troops home with honor." The Democrats would come off as divided, without a better plan, and confused in general.
If voting Republican was seen as a vote to bring the troops home, the GOP would likely hang on to control of both houses of Congress. Even though this is somewhat of a long shot, I hope Democratic leaders have taken the possibility seriously by preparing a strong defense: "We were right, the Republicans were wrong, and only now -- when their jobs are in danger -- are they coming around to our way of thinking."
(7) Exploit the Fidel Castro situation in Cuba. Odds: 7 to 1
"Bay of Pigs II," anyone? Always a favorite in southern Florida -- which is fertile ground for electoral votes. A strong possibility of unintended consequences, though. A flood of raft people arriving on Florida beaches right before the election isn't going to go over real well with the anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party. But with Castro's current medical problems, it would indeed be a convenient distraction.
(8) Announce Cheney will step down as Vice President after the election. Odds: 25 to 1
Another perennial favorite. There have been countless rumors that this is imminent, starting almost from the day he took office. This way Bush could officially anoint his successor -- giving whoever it was a huge lead in the 2008 Republican presidential primary, rather than it being an open race.
It would be easy to arrange: Cheney steps down because his doctors advise him to, for medical reasons (of course). The GOP uses it as a rallying cry to hold onto the Senate (since they would confirm his successor) -- especially if the Democrats look like they're about to pick up the six seats they need to take control of the chamber.
But personally, I don't see it happening just for an advantage in this election. I think that if it happens at all, it will happen in 2007, a year before the presidential election. So the odds are pretty bad on this one.
(9) Announce the U.S. has thwarted a huge terrorist plot to ... (fill in the blank). Odds: 5 to 4
Worst odds (for a return on your money) in the whole list, also meaning it's the most likely to happen. It would be relatively easy to manufacture out of almost nothing, and would be seen by Republicans as helping their cause enormously. Just look at the past week's media coverage of the London terrorist plot, and imagine the same a few weeks before the election. Fear always works to Republican advantage, so the probability of this being announced at a fortuitous moment during the last days of the election is (unfortunately) extremely high.
(10) Announce that Barbara and/or Jenna Bush has joined the Marines and will soon be deploying to Iraq. Odds: 17.5 billion to 1
Hoo boy. They'll be ice skating in Hell before this happens, but you just can't beat the payoff. Bet ten bucks on this one -- and win -- and you're richer than Bill Gates! Seriously, though, save your money. It just ain't gonna happen.
So step right up, ladies and gentleman, and place your bets!
You makes your choice, and you puts your money down!
If ya doesn't play, ya cain't win!
[Feel free to propose alternate conspiracy theories, but remember to give odds so others can play.]