The conventional wisdom now is that the Democrats need to watch out for a drubbing this November, akin to 1994. There is a slim possibility they could lose their House majority, and many believe that by ramming partisan health care reform through, they are setting themselves up for a fall. But Andrew Gelman at “Politics Done Right” points out that the predictions of a massive GOP win started last September, and it’s not clear that passing reform changed the dynamic. In fact, I think there are a number of reasons why Republicans need to be worried this November. Not that they’ll lose seats — I cannot conceive of them not gaining seats — but they may find November not to be the spectacular victory of which they dream. Here’s 8 reasons why:
1. Obama’s PR machine. Up through November you’ll see the Obama machine in campaign mode, pushing the positives of health care reform, and filling the public agenda with other popular items. They didn’t fight the PR fight last year in part because they feared peaking too soon. The Republicans thus dominated the news with tea parties, talk radio and scary rhetoric. For the next seven plus months, they’ll have a formidable opponent.
2. Rhetorical extremism. Last night the Republicans attacked the Democratic plan less on practical grounds then with red meat rhetoric that is sure to energize their base — comparisons to the Soviet Union, claims America is being “destroyed,” and attacks on the Democrats as arrogant, dishonest, extremists wanting to impose their elitist vision of the country on the average hard working folk. That rhetoric does appeal to party ideologues. They despise government regulation, see the world in cold war ideological terms, and have an intense hatred for Pelosi and company. To them, the Democrats have declared war on “real” America.
However, most Americans are as distant from that ideological extreme as they are from the far left. If they go into November sounding like angry extremists, they’ll see their appeal fade as quickly as it grew, especially if the Democrats offer a reasonable counter-narrative. The country is not going to “rise up in anger” and start the electoral equivalent of a revolution. The Republicans have to put forth a more positive vision.
3. Issue salience fades. Right now Republicans claim they are ready for the fight, and the activists and bloggers are certainly in this for the duration. I remember how in 1983 Helmut Kohl was seen by Germans as a weak Chancellor because he was a “patsy” for the US by modernizing NATO missiles, even though there massive protests (we’re talking 400,000 and 500,000 strong — far more than the wildest ‘tea party’ fantasy) and 70% of Kohl’s own conservatives opposed it. If he went against the country, he’d lose the next election! But once modernization was a reality, the anger went away and Kohl easily glided to victory. Most who went along for the ride simply moved on after they lost the fight. Most people aren’t really all that active in politics, most people don’t stay engaged, and they especially don’t stay angry.
4. An energized Democratic base. Yesterday gave Democrats a dose of what they felt when Obama won the election and then took office: a historic sense that something consequential has happened. That’s been missing in the ho-hum politics of the last year, as Obama’s aura faded and his agenda stalled. Now the mid terms may matter more, fund raisers will ask donors to “save those who put their jobs on the line for health care,” and a bit of the magic may return. Add some more “big issues” (immigration, climate change, jobs) and the atmosphere in November could swing towards the Democrats.
5. Bad Republican Strategy. David Frumm has it right when he said that health care, predicted by Senator DeMint to become Obama’s Waterloo, turned out to be the Republican’s. Frumm, a former Bush speechwriter, notes that the Republicans could have decided to work with the Democrats and create what to many in the GOP would have been a better health care bill. If they had done so from the start, they’d have gotten the chance to “go back and start over” as Paul Ryan pleaded during the debate. But by March 2010 it was too late for that. The Republicans bet on a strategy to hold out and block reform, believing that it would fatally wound Obama and make it impossible for him to move his agenda forward. It almost worked. However, by failing, the Republicans get the worst of both worlds. They had virtually no impact on policy, as Pelosi was forced to make sure the left wing of her party was satisfied with the bill in order to pass it, and they ended up giving Obama an opportunity to rejuvenate his Presidency.
6. The bad strategy is likely to continue. Similar to number “2” above, the rhetoric from the GOP suggests that they want to make this an all out war against the Democrats come November. But to succeed, they have to essentially gain majorities in both Houses of Congress and take the Presidency in 2012. That is very unlikely. A better strategy would be to show they can bring good ideas forward and work with the Democrats. They look unwilling to do that and risk become seen as the “Tourettes” party that simply hurls epithets like “Liar” and “Babykiller” in the halls of Congress. If anger over this bill causes them to spend the next seventh months trying to obstruct all progress, they could turn the public against them quickly.
7. Public opinion on health care reform is fluid. Polls that dig deeper find that so many people really need to know more before they can be sure of an opinion. It’s wrong for the Republicans to say that the country has “spoken clearly” against this bill. Many are still in the “easily persuadable” range, meaning that this bill could be far more popular come November.
8. The economy might show signs of real life by late summer. If the country starts feeling like we’re moving in the right direction, a lot of what people see as negative moves by Obama now might appear in a more positive light. The economy is, after all, the real force determining election results. Campaigns and other factors can have a significant impact, but ultimately the Democrats best hope is for a sense that the “worst is over” in the recession, and Obama’s policies may be working (something the campaign machine will trumpet loudly).
Should the Democrats also be worried? Of course. If the economy seems to stumble even more, then perhaps the Republicans can indeed build a sense of rage or frustration. Anything can happen, and even in the best of all worlds for the Democrats it would be very difficult not to lose a significant number of seats this year. Many seats won in 2006 and 2008 are in conservative districts; the GOP will win a lot of those back. Comparisons to 1994 abound, but 1994 came as something of a surprise to the Democrats. Now they are bracing for disaster, and that’s good — they should be worried, and building a campaign on that premise.
Still, the Republicans need to guard against delusion, the false belief that the country is thinking like them, and that their rhetoric about “losing liberty” and “Democrats destroying America” reflects the country’s mood. The biggest threat facing them is to under estimate the ability of the Democrats to put forth a strong, effective campaign. The Democrats know the threat to them is real, and understand that ‘Obama mania’ is gone. That understanding may be what saves them.