Opinion Columns & Blogs

All may not be lost for Democrats

Apparently there's no need to chronicle the autumn campaign season, because the conventional wisdom has already forecast a Republican takeover on Capitol Hill, and it seems that the sole remaining mystery is whether to characterize the November results as a "massacre" or a "tsunami."

Nobody has actually voted yet, of course, but that trifling detail won't slow the madly spinning wheels of our ever-accelerating news cycle. We're still 40-some days shy of the balloting, yet the zeitgeist arbiters on the Politico website are already naming the high-ranking Democrats who will likely be blamed for the (a) massacre or (b) tsunami.

Far be it from me to defy conventional wisdom, particularly since all the polls are signaling a GOP congressional rebirth that will rival or exceed the Newt Gingrich takeover of 1994, nearly two years into Bill Clinton's presidency. But rather than wrap up the shortest column in journalistic history, I see some value in offering a counternarrative — if only because the conventional wisdom sometimes errs, because surprises in politics do occur, because Dewey did not beat Truman.

So I asked a few Democratic strategists to list the reasons President Obama's party might actually retain (shrunken) majorities in the House and Senate. At first they seemed utterly flummoxed, as if I had asked them to devise a method for removing their pants over their heads. But soon enough, like good partisans, they warmed to the task and concocted a plausible victory scenario (sort of):

* Polls measure current sentiment, not future behavior. The current public mood is obviously toxic for the incumbent party, and the polls reflect that. But most people — devoted as they are to living their lives, getting their kids back to school, watching "America's Got Talent" — have barely begun to focus on the midterm races. Democrats still have time to get a fair hearing, and to frame this election — not as a referendum on Obama, but as a choice between Obama's party and the party that flamed out in 2006 and 2008.

* More money, better organization. The House Democratic campaign committee has a 2-to-1 cash advantage over its GOP counterpart. That means more money for TV ads, and more money for the ground game (knocking on doors, cajoling people to go to the polls). Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee, having absorbed Obama's Organizing for America campaign operation, is spending lavishly to methodically target the 15 million people who chose Obama while voting for the first time in 2008.

By contrast, the Republican National Committee — once feared in Democratic circles for its turnout prowess — is a disaster zone, thanks to the ineptitude of chairman Michael Steele. GOP operatives have been trying to work around him, a move akin to political bypass surgery, but the Democrats remain stronger on the ground.

* Obama in Truman mode. Yeah, the president's general popularity has plummeted since the inauguration, but he's still the party's best hope for juicing the liberal base. If the base stays home on Election Day (apparently demoralized by all that Obama has thus far failed to achieve), the voting will be dominated by angry conservatives (who think that Obama has been too liberal, or "socialist," or whatever). That's what happened in 1994: Newt's army showed up; Clinton's base did not.

Twice in recent days, Obama was feisty on the stump: "Do we return to the same failed policies that ran our economy into a ditch, or do we keep moving forward with policies that are slowly pulling us out? . . . It's still fear versus hope; the past versus the future. It's still a choice between sliding backward and moving forward. That's what this election is about."

It's easy to poke holes in that kind of rhetoric (note the caveat about how his policies are "slowly" pulling us out of recession), but it's solely aimed at persuading grassroots Democrats to shake off their torpor. They just might, if Obama can shelve his cerebral vibe and sustain a give-'em-hell spirit for the next few weeks. (Big if.)

The other party is even worse. Republicans have successfully surfed the public's anger and frustration over the economy, but the polls consistently show that the congressional GOP is broadly unpopular. That gives Democrats an autumn opening to sow fresh doubts about the out party, to tag the GOP as a party with no new ideas — except, perhaps, for the fringe sentiments expressed by its ascendant tea-party faction. (Alaska GOP senatorial candidate Joe Miller insists, for instance, that jobless benefits are "not constitutionally authorized." That may unnerve the millions who've been screwed by the recession, but it certainly qualifies as a new idea.)

Republicans keep promising to unveil a governing agenda; so far, nothing. Their economic prescriptions are simple: Extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and oppose whatever Obama wants to do — including various tax credits for small businesses, a proposal they have long supported, at least until Obama suggested it. As the president quipped on the stump recently, "If I say the sky is blue, they say 'no.' If I say fish live in the sea, they say 'no.' "

In fact, Obama and the Democratic candidates can rightfully highlight this dearth of GOP ideas, because even some conservative thinkers have confirmed it. As ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum noted the other day, "For 24 months, an emotionally intense opposition to the president has been unsupported by anything like a Republican policy agenda. . . . Republicans have done insufficient serious policy work over the past half-dozen years. The legacy of this inactivity is a party on the brink of power, lacking an intellectual framework for the use of that power."

So there it is — a Democratic scenario for retaining one or both chambers. Is it potent enough to trump the conventional wisdom? Doubtful, at least right now. In a season of rare ideological fervor, money and organization don't matter as much; in a season of economic anxiety, the incumbent party's message risks being ignored.

There are indeed a few publicly upbeat Democrats (Vice President Joe Biden, for instance), but their bullishness somehow brings to mind the very old joke about the guy who takes a dive off the Empire State Building, and as he passes the 34th floor, he declares:

"So far, so good!"