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Could the Democrats Lose?

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Yet Luntz is careful to insert that “almost” into his assessment, for he knows as well as anyone that, for all the similarities between 2006 and 1994, there are two large differences. The first—depressing and maddening to anyone in either party who cares a whit about the healthy functioning of a democracy—is that because of the GOP’s success at gerrymandering, the number of House races that are truly up for grabs has shrunk radically. “There were 100 to 110 competitive seats in 1994,” Rahm Emanuel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, tells me. “Today, there are 45.”

The second difference is that in 1994, the Republicans were disciplined, unified, and they put forward the Contract, with its pledges to enact term limits, a line-item veto, a balanced-budget amendment, a capital-gains tax cut, and so on.

“I think it’s almost impossible for the Democrats to blow it this time,” says Republican pollster Frank Luntz.

The Contract was a silly, obvious gimmick, its planks ranging from the merely hoary to the plainly unconstitutional. But it also embodied a clear, coherent, and specific governing agenda—something the Democrats have failed utterly to offer in this campaign cycle. “A lot of people don’t leave unhappy marriages until they find someone they want to have an affair with—they need an attractive alternative,” says a Democratic consultant who worked in the Clinton White House. “And we haven’t done very well at offering one—at defining the positive case for change.”

The twisted thing is that this failure was a conscious choice by some, though not all, of the Democratic leadership. For more than a year, its members wrangled over the question of whether to devise a progressive incarnation of the Contract. Emanuel was in favor of being maximally concrete; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi preferred to let the Republicans hang themselves. And although they eventually produced a document titled “Six for ’06”—laying out, ahem, six areas of policy where Democrats pledged to do, ahem, something—Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid demonstrated how seriously he took the effort when he dismissed the original Contract as “an urban myth” that “didn’t accomplish anything.”

Then there are the Democratic deficits in money and machinery. Howard Dean, the party’s chairman, has been shellacked by Ken Mehlman, his opposite number in the GOP, when it comes to fund-raising: $97 million to $176 million. And where Dean has spread the dough he’s raised rather promiscuously—much to the irritation of Emanuel and other Democrats—Mehlman has kept his powder dry, waiting to pour resources into the handful of races that will be decisive in November. And while the Democrats are racing to close the gap in terms of high-tech targeting and turnout—skills that were pivotal in both 2002 and 2004—the Republican advantage here remains pronounced.

Yet even Republicans acknowledge that the GOP’s organizational strengths seem notably diminished. “I know you guys in the press hated him, but Tom DeLay developed an operation that would target twelve to twenty of the weakest Republicans in the House to drag across the finish line,” says Luntz. “But [Majority Leader] John Boehner isn’t doing that, and [National Republican Congressional Committee head] Tom Reynolds is losing in his own district—so he’s kinda distracted.”

What the Republican leadership is doing is dispensing some remarkable advice: telling congressmen to focus exclusively on local issues between now and Election Day. In fact, this advice is more than remarkable—it’s wonderfully ironic. One of the seminal achievements of the GOP has been the nationalization of the midterm elections. First in 1994 and again in 2002 (with the war on terror), Karl Rove and his allies rendered inoperative Tip O’Neill’s famous maxim “All politics is local.” But now they’re praying for a resurrection of the great old Massachusetts liberal—or, at least, a resuscitation of his wisdom.

So maybe the GOP has dug itself a hole so deep that the Democrats will finally win. Maybe they won’t be hurt by the absence of an agenda—though, even in the short run, Luntz reserves some doubt. “They’ll probably win narrowly in the House,” he says. “But if they had a positive message, they could probably take ten more seats.”

And what of the longer run? What happens if the party is restored to power after running a campaign where the essence of its appeal was, Bush and his enablers blow? Here’s hoping that its members realize that more is needed to cement a durable Democratic revival. Here’s hoping they grasp that pursuing a nonstop strategy of investigation and prosecution—gloriously cathartic though it would be—is a sure way to turn whatever victory they might win this year into something that Pyrrhus would be proud of.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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