Congress is Back: Time for Democrats to go on Offense

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on April 12, 2010

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The conventional wisdom has Democrats potentially looking at huge losses in the midterm elections in the fall.  The party that wins the presidency has historically faced losses in the next congressional elections and Republicans have been creeping upward in the generic congressional polling question.  Republicans seem to have political momentum having won two contested races for Governor in New Jersey and Virginia in 2009 and Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat in a special election in January.  In each of these races, and in current polling, Republicans are more energized and motivated to get to the polls and the Tea Party activists are holding rallies to keep this momentum going. And then there are the issues.  The Democrats spent more than a year passing a health care law that continues to register more opposition than support in most polls.  Even if the economy is starting to gain some traction and Wall Street is heading upward, unemployment is still at 9.7 percent and the broader measure that includes discouraged workers and people who want, but are unable to find, permanent, full time jobs, is up to 16.9 of the labor force.  Economic forecasts are that these numbers will not be substantially lower by the fall. 2010 is not 1994 – It’s more like 2000. All this has Republicans thinking about the possibility of taking control of one or even both houses of Congress in the next election, and many in the media seem to believe this is not only possible but likely.  We appreciate the political value of low expectations so we hesitate to weigh in on the side of a more benign reading of the political lay of the land.  But at this point the greater danger among Democrats is fear more than over-confidence, so we will point out that the political reality today is parity between the parties comparable to the 2000 electorate.  Even if Democrats have lost the advantage they enjoyed just a year ago shortly after Obama was inaugurated, it’s not the case that Republicans have pulled way ahead.  We are not down by 3 touchdowns — at most, we are down by one. If the health care reform effort had stalled then the most negative scenarios for the next election might well have proven insufficiently pessimistic.  But 2010 is not 1994.  In the face of united Republicans, including an effective disinformation campaign that raised public apprehension, the Democrats ended a long and discordant process by coming together to pass reform.  Both sides engaged in a bit of magical thinking in predicting the polling on the issue would change as soon as the law passed but neither prediction has been borne out, and now both sides are left to spin the basically static polling to their advantage.  The truth is public attitudes are divided over health care reform, but that is not the point. The point is the law was passed.  Back in 1994 the public was similarly divided over the health reform effort but united in their understanding that the effort failed.  This sense that Washington was broken, more than policy differences, led to the change in control of Congress. Now the public is divided in their view of what the new law will mean but all sides agree that something important was passed by Congress and signed it into law by President Obama.  This success has the potential to become the cornerstone in a narrative of change.  If  Democrats can come together in support of two or three more pieces of legislation before the election, they can put Republicans completely on the defensive and the election results may be far less bleak than some people are expecting. Many opportunities to make Republicans face tough choices. The agenda for the summer is crowded with potential battles over financial reform, jobs bills, and now with Justice Stevens resigning, there may or may not be a Battle Royale over a Supreme Court Justice. Republicans will be under pressure from the right wing of their party. If Obama nominates a true liberal for the bench, Republicans will fight it tooth and nail, but they may fight just as hard against a moderate.  This lets Obama pick whomever he believes would be best. The nomination fight has the potential to be the side show that becomes a main event, but nothing will be more important in the fall than the economy.  And here is where Democrats have the greatest opportunity to gain a strategic advantage.  There is no more important issue to voters, and Republicans have still been unable to address the strategic weakness that lost them the last election.  Republicans do not have any ideas to improve the economy that were not policies George Bush championed before the economy collapsed. Their ideas on reducing the deficit by weakening the social safety net are hugely unpopular. The Republicans are returning from spring break vowing to fight for the economic policies that made Herbert Hoover famous — trying to balance the budget during an economic downturn. They are threatening to continue blocking things like extensions of unemployment insurance and health benefits for the unemployed unless they are “paid for” by tax increases or cuts in other spending under the pay as you go (“paygo“) rule.  Democrats should take this head on. Given a choice between jobs and balanced budgets, swing voters are going to side with the Democrats. The Democrats are on the right track now that Majority leader Reid has broken the jobs initiatives into several smaller bills.  This moves the party away from the magnum sized health care reform and spending bills that concern many Americans, while continuing on the path to economic recovery. The next few months are likely to include several issues that put Republicans in an uncomfortable position.  There is no better example than financial reform where opposition will be easily painted as choosing Wall Street over Main Street.  Immigration must be handled with care but again offers the potential to divide the Republicans while giving Democrats a path to increasing Hispanic voter turnout in 2010 and beyond. To be bold, Democrats must stay united. The key to all of this is moving forward boldly and standing strongly for those principles that unite Democrats while putting Republicans on the defensive.  In an election year, compromise with Republicans will be even less likely than in 2009, but compromise among Democrats is essential.

For every issue, there will be differences between Democrats seeking to define “real reform” and Democrats facing tough elections in moderate terrain. If this causes a protracted ideological battle as it did with health care reform, voters will be turned off and Republicans will be able to avoid the difficult choices we can make them face. If 2008 was the election cycle that proved the up-side of “United we stand…” for Democrats, then let it be the Republicans that prove the down-side, “…Divided we fall” in 2010.

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