Do the Democrats Have a Plan?
There’s an old saying that you can’t beat something with nothing. The Democratic leadership has apparently realized that but is having a wee bit of trouble coming up with “something.”
WaPo fronts a story by Shailagh Murray and Charles Babington headlined “Democrats Struggle To Seize Opportunity” and subtitled “Amid GOP Troubles, No Unified Message.”
News about GOP political corruption, inept hurricane response and chaos in Iraq has lifted Democrats’ hopes of winning control of Congress this fall. But seizing the opportunity has not been easy, as they found when they tried to unveil an agenda of their own.
Democratic leaders had set a goal of issuing their legislative manifesto by November 2005 to give voters a full year to digest their proposals. But some Democrats protested that the release date was too early, so they put it off until January. The new date slipped twice again, and now House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) says the document will be unveiled in “a matter of weeks.”
The problem is beyond simple timing and strategy.
There is no agreement on whether to try to nationalize the congressional campaign with a blueprint or “contract” with voters, as the Republicans did successfully in 1994, or to keep the races more local in tone. And the party is still divided over the war in Iraq: Some Democrats, including Pelosi, call for a phased withdrawal; many others back a longer-term military and economic commitment.
It gets better:
Even the party’s five-word 2006 motto has preoccupied congressional Democrats for months. “We had meetings where senators offered suggestions,” Reid said. “We had focus groups. We worked hard on that. . . . It’s a long, slow, arduous process.”
That slogan — “Together, America Can Do Better” — was revived from the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry. It was the last line of Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s response to President Bush’s State of the Union address, and Reid, Pelosi and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean have used it in speeches. But there is an effort afoot to drop the word “together.” It tests well in focus groups and audiences, Democratic sources said, but it makes the syntax incorrect.
Governors privately scoff at the slogan. They also say the message coming from congressional leaders has been too relentlessly negative. “They want to coordinate. They want to collaborate. That’s all good,” said one Democratic governor who declined to be identified in order to talk candidly about a closed-door meeting. “The question is: Coordinate or collaborate on what? People need to know not just what we’re against but what we’re for. That’s the kind of message the governors are interested in developing at the national level.”
Perhaps the Democrats should try dressing in more Earth tones?
E.J. Dionne is having none of this, however. He contends that, “The Democrats’ real problem is that they have failed to show how their critique of the Republican status quo is the essential first step toward the alternative program they will owe the voters in the presidential year of 2008.”
Of course, if you don’t have any idea what you stand for as a party, beyond “Bush sucks,” it’s hard to formulate much of a response.
Chris Bowers also thinks the critique is off base, pointing to a new Gallup poll which finds “More than half of registered voters (53%) favor the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House in their district; only 39% favor the Republican.” Bowers asks, “[H]ow large does our lead in the polls have to be before we are ‘seizing the opportunity?’ 20 points? 40?”
The problem is that the Gallup press release points out that,
This is not the first election since the Republican Party won majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 that the Democrats have held a double-digit lead on this important indicator of electoral strength, but it is fairly rare. Throughout much of 1996 and in a couple of polls in 1998, the Democrats enjoyed a 10- to 13-point lead. However, the norm has been for the Republicans to trail the Democrats by only about five points among all registered voters.
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to turn out to vote, particularly in midterm elections. As a result, the Republican Party has repeatedly won a majority of seats in Congress since 1994, while typically trailing the Democrats by a few points in pre-election surveys among all registered voters. In the past two midterm elections (1998 and 2002), Republicans trailed the Democrats among registered voters by nine points and five points respectively in Gallup’s final pre-election polls.
Moreover, this poll is of registered voters not likely voters. Republicans usually score several points higher among the latter, which more closely correlates to actual turnout.
The bottom line remains that, as Tip O’Neil famously counseled, all politics is local. There is, as Joe Trippi mentioned in conversation last night, an anti-incumbent sentiment that should hurt Republicans more than Democrats given the proportions in both Houses. Still, races will mostly depend on the dynamics of each of the 435 congressional districts and 33 states in play this year.
Virtually no one thinks the GOP could lose the Senate but the Republicans could conceivably lose control of the House. One could argue that they deserve to, given their profligate spending and arrogant flouting of their alleged principles. But this is an off-year election, which tends to mean low turnout, which tends to be good for Republicans since casual voters tend to come from Democratic demographics. More importantly, though, gerrymandering has rigged the system so that very few seats are actually in play. The Democrats have to virtually run the table on those seats to take the House back. My guess is that they won’t do that.