The Magazine

The Dead Duck Congress

With nothing to lose, will they go for broke?

Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Following Scott Brown’s Senate victory in Massachusetts, speculation in Washington has quickly turned from the possibility that Democrats will lose the House in November to the impossibility that they won’t. It will be interesting to see what happens if congressional Democrats actually internalize the proposition that their majority is doomed.

The Dead Duck Congress

In 1994, it wasn’t until around June that anyone began speculating seriously about the possibility that Newt Gingrich would become speaker of the House. The possibility of an end to four decades of Democratic reign in the House was almost unimaginable, especially to the Democrats in charge. True, speculation began in fall 2005 that the GOP would lose Congress in November 2006. But there was no compelling evidence to support that proposition until much later. The game wasn’t really over for the GOP until the Mark Foley scandal, involving sexually explicit instant-messaging with male House pages, broke in September. Before that, Republicans were expecting to lose a lot of seats, but not their majority.

Democrats will certainly try to talk themselves into the view that there is hope for retaining control in 2011. After all, ten months is an eternity in politics. Unfortunately for them, they are going to be deeply divided on where the basis for hope lies. The pay-no-attention-to-the-polls crowd that exhorted the advancement of health care reform even as public opposition grew greater and greater will say “pass a bill, any bill, and move on to jobs, jobs, jobs.” Others will say, “bury Obamacare like a plague-infested rat, and move on to jobs, jobs, jobs.” These positions are reconcilable only through the slow, agonizing demise of reform. It will linger without hope of improvement, but there will be no death panel with sufficient power to pull the plug. Health care is the wound that keeps on wounding.

There is also the universal assumption among Democrats that when they get to “jobs, jobs, jobs,” they will be on safe territory—a policy area about which people really care and where they can deliver. Maybe. But some Democrats will want to cater to the wishes of the party’s liberal base in the interest of ratcheting up enthusiasm for the midterm elections, where turnout is king and a listless base a catastrophe. In this scenario, a “jobs bill” will entail more money for core Democratic constituencies: labor, teachers, municipal union members in general. Such an approach will be sharply at odds with the policy preferences of those in the party who think Democrats must move to the center in order to reverse the flight of independents to the GOP. 

Some clever sideline cheerleaders will suggest that the answer is clear: Do both. Appeal to the base and the center. Sacrebleu, it’s brilliant! Except for two reasons.

One is that this was more or less the strategy for health care reform: Let the House go first with a liberal bill, and let the Senate tug it to the center, with everyone accepting the final result as the limit of the achievable. That turned out to be a less-than-perfect model. Basic elements of the plan, especially the “public option,” were in, out, deferred, transmogrified, out, and so on until everyone was left with the impression that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was making the whole thing up as he went along. Which he was.

You have to have a pretty clear grip on what is acceptable to both the very liberal “majority of the majority” in the House and the 60th-least liberal member of the Senate before you start. Neither Reid nor House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nor President Obama himself had a clue what the answer to that question was. It’s even harder to answer now that Democrats are frustrated and fearful rather than riding high. 

Second, although the electorate of January 2009 probably would have been willing to give a center-left health reform bill a chance—provided the emphasis was on “center”—the current public mood is not one in which Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress enjoy the benefit of the doubt. The center-right nation, having exited stage left in November 2008, has now reemerged stage right. A center-left Democratic strategy would amount to saying to voters, “Okay, let’s just say we didn’t squander your goodwill over the past year.” That’s not how you win the goodwill back.

The capacity for self-delusion in politics is great. The comeuppance tends to be correspondingly fierce. Most Democrats with experience of elected office seem to understand that if Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts is a losing proposition for the party, not much is safe.

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