My humble advice to Democrats: Take the long view.
The American people are angry and frustrated. The primary driver of that anger is the economy. Yes, there are myriad other factors at work, included some still-unpopular legislation, a prolonged war in Afghanistan, a nasty oil spill, and near-one party rule (60 votes is apparently necessary to qualify as one-party rule, yet 59 is enough to convince the opposition that ALL the blame for the country’s woes can be placed at the feet of the majority party).
But the major factor, in the end, is still the economy. It’s true that the major drop in support for Obama and the Dems occurred during the health care debate. But that does not explain the more recent plunge in support. As the Gallup chart shows, the Dems actually recovered quite well in the late spring, when a brief stint of positive economic news lifted the majority party’s electoral fortunes. Since nobody has uttered a peep about health care in the last month or two, one cannot help but blame the more recent disappointing news in jobs, housing and exports for the Democrats’ woes.
So, unless things suddenly turn around, which seems quite unlikely, the Republicans will very likely win the House. The Senate is still a longshot, but it’s certainly possible.
The Democratic strategy up to now has been to portray the GOP as a bunch of crazy rednecks hellbent on destroying the entire safety net and establishing a Christian version of the Taliban. This is obviously geared toward getting the Democratic base out (just as culture war issues on the right are used to get the GOP base out). It won’t be enough for November.
But it does help to set the narrative for what happens next. Lots of voters will say, “Yeah, the GOP has a bunch of right-wing kooks in it. But I’m sending a message that I want divided government back in Washington to keep the left wing of the Democratic base in check.” It’s this sentiment among Independents and centrists that will put John Boehner in the Speaker’s chair.
But it’s precisely this sentiment that will re-elect President Obama in 2012 if the economy finally does show signs of improvement.
Consider: These centrist Independents are not exactly in love with the Sharon Angles and Rand Pauls of the GOP. If, as is likely to happen, the GOP interprets a major victory as a mandate for, say, the privatization of Social Security or the destruction of Medicare, as policy “wizard” Paul Ryan has offered, then the GOP will quickly learn what the Democrats have learned: we don’t want any “radical solutions” right now – in either direction.
Remember that economic downturns create a deep feeling of insecurity in people. It was the threat to Medicare that made the Summer 2009 protests against the health reform law so potent. Sure, the Tea Party people organized the things. But the reason the anger expanded beyond, say, 35% of the population was the threat to Medicare that many older voters feared.
Do you think they’ll respond favorably to a far greater threat to Medicare from Boehner and Ryan? And Social Security?
And there lies the Democratic strategy going forward. It worked in 1995 quite well and it will work again. Keep calling out the crazies in the GOP to keep the narrative going. After all, a very large chunk of the GOP really is crazy. The Southernized GOP of today helps to concentrate and ferment this sort of paranoid right-wing idiocy. You can bet that some moron in the GOP will launch some investigation into Obama’s attempt to introduce Sharia or something.
Meanwhile, if the GOP follows Dick Morris’s genius strategy of shutting the government down again, we will see front and center just how unhinged the GOP is.
So here is my advice to Democrats.
1) Continue defining the GOP as radical and extremist. It may not help now. But as the GOP showed in 2009-10 (and as the Dems showed before that), this strategy works over the long haul. It isn’t likely that these fringe elements will become any less fringe once in power. In fact, it forces the media to play up the extreme rhetoric of the fringe, and places the leadership in an uncomfortable position of distancing themselves from base-supported nuts (and thereby depresses them).
2) Block everything. Use the filibuster (if in the minority in the Senate). Force the Republicans to unify around some foolish element of the Ryan plan and then hold a series of high-profile speeches, town halls and the like to showcase Republican extremism AND incompetence. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
3) Stand with Obama. He is not terribly popular right now. But he is still the best voice the Democrats have. Bill Clinton was horribly unpopular in late 1994. And so was Ronald Reagan in late 1982. But then things turned around the following year. If the economy turns around Obama’s numbers will improve. And he will credit the stimulus for the success. Congressional Democrats will want to do that as well (something they obviously cannot do right now).
4) Brace for it. I remember the silly charges that Clinton was no longer “relevant” after the 1994 election. Expect the same sort of claim today about Democrats and Obama being rendered impotent. But taking the long view will help Democrats hold their ground, unify, and prepare for the comeback.
If things go according to form, the GOP will post major wins this November. The victory will get over-analyzed and over-determined. The Republicans will far exceed their mandate – whatever it is, considering they have yet to lay out any plan for improving the economy. They will launch deeply unpopular witch hunts as they did in the late 1990s. And without the benefit of total minority status, wherein the minority takes zero responsibility for the nation’s woes, voters will turn their ire back toward the same GOP that got fired in 2006 and 2008.
There is one caveat to all this, my Democratic friends. The economy really does have to improve in 2011 and 2012. I feared this would happen back in early 2009 – the economy was so weak that voters would blame the Democrats by late 2010 for the poor economy. There is probably very little that the government can do right now to improve the economy except wait for the business cycle to run its course. The government has spent as much Keynesian stimulus as politically possible. It has almost certainly saved millions of jobs in both the private and public sector. But it has yet to turn the economy around.
This is the comeback strategy for the Democrats, partly based on the current GOP model and partly on the Democrats’ successes in 2006 and 2008. The larger demographic factors that benefit the Democratic Party are still present. The economy should start rebounding by late 2011. Hopefully.
But if the economy is still struggling in 2012 then, well, all bets are off.