This has been a pretty weird political cycle, and I'm starting to wonder whether it is the strangest ever. There have certainly been cycles that have been more dramatic -- such as the 1968 cycle of assassinations and a powerful incumbent being taken out by a quirky intellectual troubadour -- but in terms of pure weirdness, this could be the tops. And I'm not even talking about Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck.
The weirdness I am referring to is this odd sense I have that both parties are trying so hard to lose. Obama started out the cycle by appointing one of the main architects of the incredibly unpopular Bush bailout plans -- Tim Geithner -- to be his chief economic policymaker and spokesman, and followed that by re-appointing Bush's Fed chief Ben Bernanke. Now that we're into campaign season, the message group closest to the Democratic establishment (Third Way) is solemnly advising us to avoid being too populist in a year when anger at the banks and other corporate CEOs is as high as it has been since the 1930s, and the aforementioned Geithner writes columns bragging about economy recovery when the official unemployment rates remains stalled at close to 10%, and the true unemployment rate is several points higher. While all this goes on policy-wise, the White House political strategy in a year when their base is disheartened seems mainly to be to make their base even more upset.
In the meantime, the Republican Party -- faced with an incredible opportunity -- nominates one candidate after another that are beyond-the-pale extremists. Senators with lifetime scores of 95% from the American Conservative Union and protégés of Mitch McConnell and James Watt are not conservative enough for the Republicans: they nominate people who want to repeal civil rights laws, phase out Social Security and Medicare (or declare them unconstitutional), abolish the minimum wage, and secede from the union. On top of that, with the critically important Hispanic community disheartened by no progress on immigration reform and the weak economy, Republicans have seized on a way to help Democrats turn them out in huge numbers with a big Democratic vote by supporting a fundamental blow to their civil rights in Arizona, a powerful symbol that has the Hispanic voting bloc nationwide suddenly more energized.
As a result of all this silliness, both parties' approval ratings are in the toilet. This is a pretty unusual dynamic. In 1994, Republicans' popularity was going up as Dems were going down, and in both 2006 and 2008, Dems' numbers were going up while Bush and Republicans' numbers in general were tanking. Today, two months out from the big election, voters are ticked off at both parties, and that's before the fall attack ad season.
What's a Democratic candidate to do in this weird and awful political environment?
Each race is different, but here's my advice going into the last couple of months:
1. Get out every last Democratic base voter you can. There's a tendency when you get in trouble in a campaign and have trouble moving voters to throw more and more money into TV. And of course, a lot of consultants who make their money off TV ads will feed that tendency: hey, if 1,000 points a week worth of ads isn't moving voters, maybe 1,500 will; if 1,500 isn't doing it, maybe if we throw 2,000 at them it will do the trick. But in a year like this, it is going to be very hard to move swing voters in a bad mood. Yes, you have to stay on TV to stay competitive, but every spare dime you have should go into bringing extra base voters to the polling places. Based on everything I am seeing in the polls and focus groups, convincing African-Americans, Latinos, unmarried women and youth who like Democrats to come vote will be challenging, but easier than switching the votes of angry white working-class swing voters.
2. Show independence from Obama, but not in a way that undermines the Democratic brand and turns off base voters. The instinct for a lot of candidates will be to show they are independent from Obama by denouncing the health care bill or the climate change bill or other core aspects of the Democratic Party's identity, but it's a dangerous game because it weakens the party and depresses the base vote in a year when the last thing you want to do is either of those. A better strategy in terms of showing your independence is to be more populist than Obama: go after Tim Geithner, like Tom Perriello just did; talk about how the health insurance bill wasn't tough enough on drug or insurance companies; talk about how the financial reform bill's problem was that it didn't break up the banks. Working-class swing voters and base Democrats will both respond to these ways of showing you aren't in Obama's pocket.
3. Show your anger at the special interests, but also have a substitute plan for improving things. MoveOn's polling showed that 89% of voters said it was very important that a candidate for Congress commits to reducing the influence of lobbyists, and 62% said they were more likely to support a candidate that commits to limiting the influence of large corporations in how the government runs. Those are incredibly high numbers, and the anger people show in focus groups at the big banks and insurance companies and oil companies show that those feelings are close to the surface. But angry populism alone won't get it done, because people want to know what your plan is for creating jobs and rebuilding the economy. A plan to take government back from corporate special interests, combined with a plan to invest in manufacturing jobs and small business entrepreneurialism, is critical to surviving politically this year.
4. Be specific in going after waste in government. Voters are convinced there is a lot of waste in government, and in fact there is. Democratic candidates should not reflexively defend all government spending, or talk about waste generically because that feeds the Republican attack machine. Show voters you understand that there is waste in government, and that you are going to do something about it: take on the no-bid and sloppy contracting, big agribusiness subsidies, oil company subsidies, tax breaks for creating jobs overseas, and other forms of abuse and waste that costs hundreds of billions of dollars a year. When government isn't working right, Democrats don't need to automatically defend it: our goal isn't bigger government; it is a government on the side of the American people.
In spite of the Republican extremists being nominated, this is going to be an incredibly tough year to be a Democrat on the ballot. We are going to lose a lot of seats in both houses of Congress and downballot as well. But if Democrats turn out their base voters, take on the big banks and insurers and oil companies, and show they are focused on fighting for the middle class, they can hold their losses to a minimum.
Cross-posted at my home blog, OpenLeft.com, where you can read all of my writing on politics and the 2010 elections.