There are a number of things the Democrats can do between now and next year to mitigate the losses they are sure to experience in 2010.
1. Pass health care reform before the State of the Union: The biggest no-brainer on the list, the Democrats must pass their top priority legislation in time for Obama to champion its success. Harry Reid has said he hopes to have a vote in the Senate by Christmas. This means we'll blow by the end-of-year deadline, but that we should have just enough time to get the bill signed for the big speech.
2. Pass a jobs bill: This is a biggie. Health care reform needs to wrap up by mid-January, not just for its own victory, but so that the White House and Congress can shift the focus of their daily message back to the economy. Passing a jobs bill brings with it some risks. First, the Republicans will call it a second stimulus, and will say that the need for a jobs bill means that the first stimulus was insufficient. In the short-term, it could be a heavy lift. But over the next 11 months, the consequences of a jobs bill could mean the difference between losing 10 seats in the House and losing 20. Conventional wisdom among economists (if there is such a thing) generally suggests that jobs tend to lag a year behind the rest of the recovery. But with the economy shedding only 11,000 jobs in November, it's possible that by the first quarter of next year, if not sooner, we will start seeing positive job growth month after month. If a jobs bill can help spur a pattern of strong economic indicators in the run-up to the midterms, Democrats will surely benefit. A new jobs bill doesn't have to save the economy - the first stimulus already did that. It just has to make things go faster.
3. Have an immigration debate. There couldn't be a better time to talk immigration reform. Obama's victory in at least 5 battleground states was based in large part on his impressive popularity among Hispanic voters. Working to solidify that support, not just for himself, but for the Democratic party, will help tremendously over the long term, starting in 2010. A recent poll found that, among registered Hispanic voters, 84% said that it was important for Congress to pass a bill on immigration reform before the midterms. Getting something done for that constituency is important. It also has the added benefit of making the GOP go nuts. For the more reasoned among the GOP, the solution to a growing Hispanic problem would be to offer some form of bipartisan immigration reform legislation, something to show that the GOP has the interests of the Latino community in mind. But doing so would tear the party apart. Imagine the backlash to immigration reform that will surely be spewed by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and their millions of fringy followers. If Holocaust victims could find their way onto protesters' signs over health care reform, imagine what kind of trash will be drudged up when we move on to immigration.
4. Talk Deficit Reduction: This one is tough. Obama and the Democrats are getting hammered on deficits, and have yet to make a clear and convincing argument that they are committed to reducing them. I suspect we will be hearing the most substantive argument for deficit reduction during Obama's State of the Union address. If the Democratic priorities for 2010 are jobs, deficits and immigration, they'll be putting themselves in their strongest possible position to minimize GOP gains.
5. Hang a Lantern on Your Problem. The 2010 race is tough for the Democrats for a number of reasons. It's not just that the president's party almost always loses a sizeable chunk of seats in the first midterm after his election, or that a midterm election has a vastly more conservative electorate, or that having won two landslide victories in a row, their majority is swollen to its saturation point. It's that, having inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama and the Democrats had to do a number of incredibly unpopular things to save the country from the cliff. Democrats should start saying so, as loudly as they can.
Doing what's unpopular for the sake of the country is called by another name: leadership. Democrats need to make clear that they didn't do what was popular, they did what was necessary. That they risked their jobs to make things right. If the election is framed around the idea that Democrats have spent uncontrollably since they came into office, they will lose a ton of seats. If it's framed around the idea that Democrats did what needed to be done, without political calculation, to save the country, then they can prevail. After all, doing what needs to be done without political calculation sounds an awful lot like the new kind of politics we were promised all along.
6. Nationalize and Localize... at the same time: After Democratic losses in New Jersey and Virginia last month, David Axelrod was asked how Democrats would avoid a similar fate in 2010. "The goal looking forward to 2010 - when we will in fact have a broad national election in Congress - is to motivate those independent voters who voted for us last time but stayed home this time," he said. In a lot of ways, this makes sense. The 2010 electorate will never look like the 2008 electorate. But every inch the party moves toward closing that gap will have a substantive impact on the outcome of the midterms. Nationalizing the election can help activate base voters, who can be convinced that their vote in 2010 is a direct reflection of their desire to see Obama's agenda enacted.
Of course, there is a downside: the most vulnerable Democrats represent districts Obama lost in 2008, and where his popularity is strikingly low. Candidates in those districts that embrace Obama fully may find themselves falling off their tight ropes. They'll want to describe themselves in terms that separate themselves from their party; they'll want to individualize the contest based on the concerns of their constituency. To be successful, both of these things have to happen at the same time. Obama should nationalize the election, and in doing so, help mobilize the base around the country, including in those tough districts. At the same time, those seeking reelection should keep their focus local.
7. Define victory: As the dynamics in the Senate races begin to unfold, it looks like the Democrats are as likely to net a few seats as they are to lose them. That's great news for the party. On the House side, the Democratic party can afford to lose a number of vulnerable Democrats without compromising their ability to legislate. In that sense, the best thing that can happen to the Party from a long-term strategic perspective, is to lose just enough seats that it won't impact the Democrats' power, but just enough seats that the Republicans will think they won big and, as a result, should continue their strategy of inciting the fringiest among them for political gain. That will be the wrong lesson for the GOP to draw from the results, but if that's the one they draw, it means they will continue down this dysfunctional path. Over time, that will only accelerate their self-destruction. In 2012, after the Congressional map has been redistricted, with Obama's name back on the top of the ticket (and David Plouffe back at the helm), any gains Republicans made in 2010, will, as a result, have a strong potential of disappearing.
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