"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.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed earlier this week the U.S. determination to stay as long as necessary in Afghanistan, after the mid-2011 drawdown date, and dissuaded Afghan President Karzai from dealing further with Afghan Taliban.
Alumni of the Vietnam era will argue that we should be encouraging Karzai toward such negotiations. Al Qaida, headquartered in Afghanistan post 9/11, now operates out of Pakistan and could move to Yemen or elsewhere. Pakistan is now the main game; Afghanistan no longer is vital to U.S. interests. "Why are we in Afghanistan?" questions will plague Democratic congressional candidates until election day.
Voters also are unsettled by the Obama administration's continuing high-visibility efforts to enforce tough sanctions against Iran as it continues its drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Russia, China, and others, it is clear, will not buy into such sanctions, which in any case have an ineffectual history. We are not about to go to war in Iran.
The only practical course is to encourage new-generation Iranian leaders who want to modernize their country and shed clerical rule. The administration's shouting is not frightening Iran's leaders; it only serves to worry Americans.
Whether you agree or disagree with Obama domestic or foreign policies, it is a fact that Democratic congressional candidates will be hurt if this fall's elections become a national referendum on those policies. The Murray Way — that is, to stress local issues and differences with the Republican candidate — is the practical course for candidate survival.
What if present polling data hold up and Democratic losses are as large as presently indicated?
That likely would signal a fundamental political realignment heading toward the 2012 national election. Today's Tea Partiers and others currently in rebellion bear a striking resemblance to the Reagan Democrats, who emerged in the 1970s, and to 1992 followers of Ross Perot. So-called Reagan Democrats gave President Reagan two terms in the White House. The 1992 Perotistas gave their candidate 19 percent of the total popular vote, despite Perot's pratfalls during the campaign. (Most of the Perot votes were at the expense of President Bush and served to elect Bill Clinton).
Not only Tea Partiers but moderate independents have abandoned the Democratic Party and Obama in large numbers. The president's only reliable supporters now lie among African American voters and members of teacher and public-employee unions. That is not a base on which to build a long-term winning coalition.
A Democratic optimist would claim that anti-administration sentiment will subside by election day and that Tea Partiers by then will divide Republican forces and alienate independents. And there is always the reality that Republicans are called The Dumb Party for good reason and historically have found ways to screw up prospective victories. But savvy Democratic candidates should not count on these things happening.
My own take: Democrats are likely to have larger-than-usual losses in November's congressional and also state elections. Maybe we are headed to something like 1994, when the collapse of Clinton health-care proposals helped trigger a swing toward Republicans, who gained control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
A number of Democratic House incumbents, however, rallied late in the 1994 campaign period to hold their seats. No techtonic shift took place. A few years later Democrats again were in control of Congress and, in 1996, Clinton retook the White House.
Have no illusion, however, about what will happen in 2011 and 2012, even if Democratic losses are held to historic off-year levels. Even in a best case, Democrats will lose their filibuster-proof Senate majority and will hold a bare majority in the House. The public agenda will be gridlocked and political polarization will be deepened over the next two years.