"Nothing concentrates one's mind like the imminence of hanging." — Samuel Johnson
We are headed toward November congressional elections that could cost Democrats control of at least one house of Congress and, in a worst case, lead to a subsequent political realignment in the country. Even in true-blue, politically correct constituencies such as ours, incumbents who normally would be thought "safe" — for instance, Sen. Patty Murray — are in prospectively competitive races.
What can Democrats do to avert worse than normal off-year election losses?
Murray is doing it the correct way. She is "localizing" her race, showing specific people and projects benefiting from her influence as a senior senator. She is making strength out of what otherwise could be vulnerability — that is, her identification as a big spending earmarker associated with White House and congressional policies unpopular in the country. As her campaign proceeds, she no doubt will emphasize specific differences with her likely Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, rather than pursuing general partisan themes. Murray is likely to be re-elected.
Democratic candidates not taking Murray's example, and even some who are, are headed for trouble.
At this late date, there is little that can be done to change the fundamentals in this year's elections. That is, we will until election day experience further economic stagnation and high unemployment. Internationally, we will remain stuck with unresolved problems that also unsettle voters.
Though true-blue partisans might be surprised to hear it, the general electorate also is restive about Democratic-associated initiatives that are perceived as creating dangerous federal debt and, additionally, wrenching and expensive changes, which have changed traditional relationships between the public and private sectors. These include not only the TARP program, largely picked up from the Bush Treasury Department, but also the huge economic stimulus package, which has created little short-term stimulus; unprecedented interventions in the auto, housing, and banking industries; and a wholesale remake of the health sector, which already is having many unintended consequences for health providers and consumers.
Partisans might like to think so, but Democrats' main problems are not principally due to leftover Bush-Cheney policies, Republican obstructionism, or the influences of Fox News, Tea Partiers, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh. The problems are due to the fact that their 2009-2010 agenda has been out of sync with the values and beliefs of a majority of American voters.
Democrats also are unpopular because President Barrack Obama and a Democratic Congress have governed in a way voters did not expect on the basis of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. The Obama of 2008 promised to govern as a pragmatic problem solver, reaching across partisan and ideological lines to end the polarizations of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years. The Obama of 2009-10 has governed on an aggressively partisan basis and pushed legislation that normally would have waited until financial and economic stability had been restored domestically. Too much, too costly, too sweeping in a time when ordinary citizens have been forced to retrench.
Security and international issues also are having an impact on this fall's electoral landscape.
The Justice Department's suit against the controversial Arizona immigration law has deepened voters' suspicions that the administration is not serious about its fundamental responsibility for border security. Obama in the past few days has said he will dispatch new National Guard forces to our southern border while emphasizing the need for comprehensive immigration reform that will, among other things, regularize the status of the estimated 13 million illegals, mostly Latinos, already in the country. But such legislation cannot now pass. In the meantime, voters want cross-border narcotics, weapons, and human trafficking stopped.
Events in Afghanistan are eerily similar to those in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. Then we shifted from a "search and destroy" strategy, aimed at engaging enemy forces in the countryside, to a "clear and hold" strategy to secure population centers. We also put new emphasis on what then was called "the other war" — economic and political reforms aimed at winning Vietnamese hearts and minds. It was another decade before the U.S. concluded that American interests were not sufficient in Vietnam to justify our levels of involvement. We left on terms we could have gotten by simply adhering the 1954 Geneva accords after the French departure from Indochina.
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