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Could the Democrats Lose?

With these poll numbers, they look like a lock—but don’t forget, they’re the Dems. And winning may bring its own set of problems.

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Illustration by Darrow  

Like everyone even vaguely attuned to national politics, I’ve been watching the events of the past fortnight with a mixture, to steal a phrase, of shock and awe. Iraq is imploding so violently that even the loyal Bush-family acolyte Jim Baker (who, please recall, not only served as 41’s foreign-policy fixer but as 43’s go-to guy in the Floridian recount in 2000) is preparing to advocate a change of course. The president’s approval ratings, after a brief uptick, have fallen back into the thirties. Hard-core conservatives, already disgusted over runaway federal spending and Bush’s namby-pamby stance on immigration, have been driven further into despond by the Foley scandal; Evangelical leaders have called for Speaker Dennis Hastert’s pumpkin-shaped head on a pike. A month ago, in the wake of the 9/11 anniversary, the GOP had a decent chance of keeping control of the House and a better one of holding the Senate. Now the party is staring down the barrel of a bicameral rout.

Unless, of course, the Democrats, being Democrats, somehow fuck it up.

And so last week I sent an e-mail to a Democratic operative who has worked at a high level in Washington politics—on Capitol Hill, in the White House, on presidential campaigns—since the seventies. Can you imagine a plausible scenario, I asked, in which the Republicans turn the tide?

“I am sure it’s possible,” he replied. “But I cannot think of a persuasive answer … that is, one that I actually believe.

“Do I believe that the uncovering of a major Democratic scandal is likely to even the playing field? No, I do not. That would be bad for all incumbents, but not necessarily bad for all Democrats, challengers or incumbents …

“Do I believe that the Republicans can effectively play the security card? No, I do not. They have been running on that for six years. They simply are not able to compete with objective reality—or TV’s depiction of it—in Iraq and elsewhere …

“Do I believe that the Republicans can find something in the last four weeks that depresses Democratic turnout? No, I do not. Our people … have been waiting to be proven right in our view of the world, and now, finally, with the arc of history bending toward justice, with Iraq turning out as we feared, with Republican hypocrisy on social issues on display in front of their base and ours, I can’t imagine any news development that would demoralize our base … Our people want—uhm—revenge.”

To maintain that this is the prevailing mind-set among most Democrats right now might be an exaggeration. But only a slight one. Democrats are flushed. Democrats are giddy. They see 2006 shaping up as a rerun of 1994, with the partisan polarities reversed.

All of which has got me thinking: disaster in the making.

Now, let’s be clear, the bubbly optimism in the Democratic ranks isn’t delusional; it’s supported by a blizzard of numbers. Every recent national poll shows every trend running in the Democrats’ direction. Consider last week’s USA Today/Gallup “generic ballot” survey: 59 percent of likely voters say they plan to vote Democratic in the House elections, while just 36 percent say the same about voting Republican. (This 23-point gap is the largest the Democrats have enjoyed since the seventies and double the average lead that they’ve held throughout 2006.) Or consider the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, which found that voters view the Democrats more favorably than the GOP on Iraq, the economy, taxing and spending, ethics, and morals—on everything but terrorism, where the Republican lead has dwindled to a measly one percentage point.

Such polls are the starting point for the argument that 2006 may turn out to be the mirror image of 1994. But there’s more to the argument than numbers. In 1994, you had a congressional ruling party corrupted by a too-long, too-unfettered reign. You had a White House that, despite being of the same party that ran both the House and Senate, was largely incapable of passing meaningful legislation. You had a president who pinned his fortunes on a single initiative, which proved vastly unpopular. You had an electorate in which the center was sufficiently fed up to put aside its fear of change, and a Democratic base sufficiently uninspired to stay home in droves on Election Day. And while Bush’s Iraq fiasco dwarfs Bill Clinton’s health-care cock-up in scale and significance, the other parallels between then and now are unmistakable.

And it’s not just Democrats who see them. Frank Luntz, the GOP pollster whose work on behalf of Newt Gingrich was instrumental in the framing of the Republicans’ Contract With America back then, has been saying for a year that 2006 could be another housecleaning election. “The Democrats never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” he says. “But I think it’s almost impossible, even for them, to blow it this time.”


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