Could the Democrats Lose?

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.”

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.


Could the Democrats Lose?