Wednesday, January 06, 2010

November Politics

(ed. note: You can also find this post on the Alexandria blog, a bi-partisan political hoedown of sorts... Go see, and if so inclined, feel free to comment here and there).

On its face, a midterm election seems to follow a simple rule. If the majority party is unpopular, it loses seats in Congress, a fate that almost certainly awaits the Democrats this November. Only, it’s complicated, and both parties would do well to consider the terrain before they endeavor to exploit it.

First of all, while the Democrats qualify as an unpopular majority, the Republicans have failed to parlay voter disenchantment into zeal for their platform. A cynic (or a political opponent) would argue that they have no platform.

The above will set the tone for hotly contested elections. Republicans will frame the debate around unpopular Democratic legislation and (depending on the region) attach their Democratic opponents to Barack Obama. Democrats, conversely, will argue that their Republican opponents have no ideas and propose no action. Individual candidates will tread water, hoping for a scandal to bring down their opponent.

This is boilerplate. The Democratic line is not likely to garner substantial victories, but serves to dampen enthusiasm, thereby averting a shift of power in the House and Senate. The Republican mode will ensure the picking of low hanging fruit. It’s a gentleman’s agreement by proxy, a message war that keeps long-term incumbents safe and secure.

Democrats are already hunkering down for a lousy November. The party is shedding non-viables (Dorgan, Dodd), sticking to its message (“we do, they don’t”), and trying to pass as much legislation as quickly as possible. The party has more or less reconciled itself to a minor bloodletting. Not that it has much of a choice. Incumbents are tethered to the legislation they produce.

But this is not a boilerplate election. Republicans are the minority party, but they still have the stink of incumbency. Pointing at all the lousy legislation Dems have passed only reinforces the fact that congress is a bankrupt institution. This is not an ethos that drives voters to the polls.

Instead, Republicans should look to the Karl Rove & Rahm Emanuel playbook of 2004 and 2006. In a 2004 election that felt like a war referendum, Democrats nominated John Kerry largely because he had served in the military. Ceding this ground would have lent a certain moral authority to his candidacy. So Rove went at it.

Most remember the 2004 campaign for the notorious Swift Boat ads. It’s worth noting, however, that the ads ran infrequently, and in select markets. It became a major story only because Kerry was already on the defensive about his war record. His campaign clearly wasn’t prepared for criticism of his war record, as evinced by Kerry’s bizarre claim that he retrieved medals after throwing them over the fence in an anti-war photo-op. As a result, Kerry couldn’t tout his greatest, most relevant asset to his candidacy.

Chastened by an inept 2004 campaign season, the Democrats employed a similar tack. They could have settled for modest gains by running against George W. Bush, but Emanuel went swinging for the fences. Noting that Republicans were perceived as the “moral values” party, they embarked on a campaign centered around unearthing scandals and producing them at opportune times.

Mark Foley was hardly a major player in DC, but his sexual misgivings symbolized a party that was hypocritical about sexual perversion. Ted Haggard’s scandals were introduced at a time when American Evangelicalism was at its peak of political power. The Jack Abramoff story was a gift that kept on giving; if Republicans are for small government, what were they doing with that guy? The Macaca incident seemed to symbolize a party that we aloof, and even uncivil. The Republicans responded with a bunch of treacly ads about how we all knew it was time for change. Indeed.

As primary season ends, and campaigns ramp up in earnest, Republicans should heed the lessons of Rove and Emanuel. How? They should portray the Democrats as the do nothing party.

The Democrats best argument for re-election is that they have tackled the issues Republicans have been afraid to touch. And yet, what does the average swing voter get out of the health care bill, other than a $100 million tab from the state of Nebraska? Not much, and you can scarcely argue that health care has been “reformed”. What about the environment? No progress. Just a dead bill floating in the water.

The TARP and stimulus funds did nothing to address the foreclosure crisis. There weren’t enough shovel ready projects to go around. And didn’t Obama promise to cut taxes at some point?

And that’s just domestic issues. What about Afghanistan? Status quo city. Iraq? Nothing new. Iran? Nothing at all. Yemen? Well, we shipped them some terrorists. North Korea? Waiting for Kim Jong Il to die is not a policy. Obama having beer with a cop he insulted on network television is not a policy.

Keep in mind that while Obama will have had less than two years to bring change we can believe in, the Democratic Congress will have had four.

The argument is counterintuitive, but quite accurate, as political smears go. Democrats have been afraid to pass bold initiatives because they didn’t want to face the political consequences. The last thing they expect is to have to face political consequences for their inaction. After all, aren’t the tea partiers yelling for them to stop? They’ll laugh off the accusation.

And do so at their own peril.

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