President Obama is enjoying a post-convention bump in job approval (Gallup says 7 percentage points -- from 45 to 52 percent) after the negative and divisive Republican convention, followed by the energetic populism of the Democrats in Charlotte. With large leads among women and people of color, and the stark contrast on economic issues building movement toward Obama even among white males in key states, the prospects for Obama winning a second term are starting to look pretty good.
But what about the House? Prospects for Dems keeping the Senate are looking better, but if the House of Representatives stays in Republican hands, even if President Obama is re-elected his second term will be crippled. Obama can still name good Supreme Court justices, and he can veto terrible legislation -- both good reasons to vote for him -- but, in the face of Republican obstructionism, he will be virtually powerless to pass economic recovery laws aimed at creating jobs and getting the economy growing and not shrinking.
Obama has repeatedly told voters they have the opportunity to "break the current stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different ideas on how to create strong, sustained economic growth" -- as he said in Cleveland on June 14. A few days later he told a campaign crowd "What's holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different visions on which direction we should go, and this election is your chance to break that stalemate.".
Obama is right, of course, but only if the voters reelect him AND sweep into office at least 25 Democrats to seats now held by Republicans. You didn't hear much about taking back the House as a goal of Democrats at the Charlotte convention -- an indication that they don't want to look like failures if they fall short. But for the same reasons Obama now looks like a winner, Democrats and independent activists now have the possibility of "nationalizing" contests for the House and turning this election into an historic wave election that can truly "break the stalemate" and put the nation on a course of decisive change. How do we do that?
1. Tell voters Republican economics won't just fail -- they will kill jobs and plunge us back into recession.
Too many Democrats describe the Romney-Ryan-Republican economic plans as taking us back to "the failed Bush policies." But they are much worse than that -- because they would not only cut taxes for the rich, THEY WOULD KILL JOBS AND PUSH AMERICA BACK INTO RECESSION. Romney and Ryan (and every House member who voted for the Ryan budget) would cut public spending so drastically they would destroy our struggling recovery and throw millions more Americans onto the unemployment rolls. Republicans have voted repeatedly for this kind of European-style austerity. Democratic challengers should call them what they are: job killers. And challenge incumbent Republican Members of Congress to repudiate their votes for the Ryan budget.
2. Oppose outrageously unfair tax cuts for the wealthy.
House Republicans think making the Bush tax cuts for millionaires permanent is very popular with voters -- but they are very wrong. All but four House Republicans voted for the Ryan budget containing these tax provisions. Many of them were committing political suicide -- if Democrats take them on. Every tax provision in the Ryan budget is wildly unpopular in the minds of the majority of voters who reject the idea of more tax cuts for the super-rich. A June 2012 Peter Hart and Associates poll of likely voters for Americans for Tax Fairness found:
- 72 percent favor increasing tax rates on incomes above $250,000 (rolling back the Bush tax cuts).
- 68 percent favor ending tax breaks for corporations shipping jobs overseas.
- 64 percent want to ensure large corporations pay their fair share of taxes.
- And 46 percent want to end the low (capital gains) tax rate on income from stocks and bonds
The take-away: Americans hate the idea of tax cuts for the wealthy -- on fairness grounds alone. But Republicans claim tax cuts for the rich are the best way they will create jobs, so the unpopularity of their tax plan (if we expose it) undercuts the entire GOP (so-called) jobs and growth plan as well.
3. Stand up for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- and expose all GOP incumbents who have voted to destroy those popular programs.
A large number of House Republicans are on record calling for cuts to Social Security benefits or increases in the retirement age. And many support the kind of privatization of Social Security that Paul Ryan called for in his 2010 Roadmap for America's Future, embraced by most of the House Republican caucus. If Democratic challengers are bold enough to declare opposition to Social Security benefit cuts and attack the idea of privatization, they will find they can put their Republican opponents on the defensive, as these damaging changes to America's most important retirement program are unpopular, even to members of the Tea Party.
All but four House Republican incumbents voted for the 2012 Ryan budget, which passed the House only to be defeated in the Senate. Denounced by the U.S. Catholic bishops for its very large cuts to programs aimed at reducing poverty, including Medicaid, the Ryan budget was described by the bishops as "fail[ing] to meet these moral criteria." And the "Nuns on the Bus" have been touring the country, rallying voters against Medicaid cuts.
The Ryan budget would also turn Medicare into a voucher system, which would cost seniors a larger and larger portion of their incomes, as the value of vouchers fail to keep up with the cost of health care. And it would force older Americans to deal with a confusing array of private insurance plans in their retirement years. This Medicare voucher plan, embraced by Mitt Romney, is very, very unpopular with seniors and Americans of all ages. Aggressive defense of Medicare by Democratic challengers can turn many a contest into an upset.
For those who doubt Dems can win in tough races, consider the 2011 special election victory of Rep. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat running in Jack Kemp's old upstate district, New York 26 -- which hadn't elected a Democrat in four decades. A Washington Post article attributed her victory to her opposition to the "House Republicans' budget plan authored by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan -- and, in particular, his proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program." Hochul's winning message could win almost anywhere this year: "I won't to let them cut Social Security benefits and end Medicare as we know it while giving more tax cuts to the rich." That was, and is, a winning message. Add a plan for jobs, and your opponent is on the ropes by Election Day.
4. Fight for JOBS FIRST -- and go after every incumbent who opposed Obama's American Jobs Act.
Republicans won the House in 2010 by pointing to high unemployment and charging the Democratic economic program had failed. At that point Democrats had no new jobs plan to run on. A year ago, President Obama stopped talking about deficit reduction and put the American Jobs Act on the table. Every Democrat running for a House seat this year can accuse the Republican incumbent of blocking that jobs plan, which independent experts have estimated would have produced 1.9 million jobs by rebuilding America's infrastructure and schools and helping states hire, not lay off, teachers and cops and firefighters. Democrats need to campaign as a party with a popular plan to put people to work, grow the economy, and get the private sector growing faster. And it would be great if President Obama would campaign a little bit more like Harry Truman, denouncing Republicans in the House (what Truman called the "do nothing Republicans") for their obstructionism in blocking passage of his jobs bill.
Democratic candidates for the House also need remind voters that the (Romney-Ryan) Republican plan to slash public spending will kill jobs and throw the U.S. back into recession -- just as similar radical austerity regimes in Britain and Ireland and Spain and other European countries have caused recession to sweep the continent. We have to expose the Republicans' post-election plans to cut taxes for the wealthy (which won't stimulate the economy) and their plans to slash public investment, which will kill economic growth and increase joblessness.
While acknowledging that we have to get deficits under control in the long term, Democrats must insist that America's first priority must be to get unemployment down and economic growth up. And that means getting voters educated and alerted to Republican plans to impose draconian austerity if they manage to keep the House. In the next 60 days, Democrats must be the champions of full-employment, and get the voters to see Republicans as the job killers that they are.
5. Charge up the Democratic base voters -- and give them a reason to get out and vote.
The spectacle of Republicans in Tampa attacking women, welfare-baiting minorities, and doubling-down on tax cuts for the rich has fired up Democratic base voters -- even among progressives, who may have problems with Obama, but who know letting Romney and a Republican Congress run the country would be a disaster. The Charlotte convention helped as well: showing off Democrats as both diverse and united -- and fighting for a much more progressive vision of our economic future.
President Obama is right when he says this election offers us the opportunity to "break the current stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different ideas on how to create strong, sustained economic growth." But we all have to work to get him to go beyond a pitch for his own re-election. He should ask voters to "send to Washington a new group of Congressional leaders who will work with me to break that stalemate." As he gets more confident in his own re-election, I hope we can get him to call for throwing out the obstructionists.
However, as we've learned, we can't wait for Obama. It's our country, and we need to save it. So it's our job to get to work in every Congressional district that might produce that swing of 25 seats. We've got to teach the Democratic candidates how to campaign -- against the Romney-Ryan job-killing plan, for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, against unfair tax cuts for the wealthy, and for the Democratic plan for jobs.
As I write this, MoveOn is sending around Nate Silver's new analysis in the NY Times that finds "Obama's chance of victory would be an amazing 91 percent if everyone who's registered actually votes this year." MoveOn is asking for contributions to raise $600,000 this week to create (with the AFL-CIO's Workers' Voice) the largest independent get-out-the-vote operation in the country. This kind of thing is doable, and you can learn more here, because getting out the Democratic base vote -- and giving them good reasons to vote -- is going to be crucial in the next two months.
Here's another encouraging sign: Political scientists Jacob Hacker and Nate Loewentheil recently published a paper that summarizes in accessible (and non-political) language, the first four points above. After a blogger conference call to discuss A New Strategy for Prosperity, the legendary Digby and colleagues got the document to progressive House candidates they are supporting, and 16 of them have endorsed the ideas and are running under the banner of Americans for Real Prosperity.
The old optimism from 2008 is coming back -- tempered by the realities of the last four years. We should all work for the re-election of Barack Obama, but we should also work to make sure he has a Congress that can help him carry out the big changes that America needs. And we've got to make sure that after the election there is a powerful progressive movement pushing President Obama and the new Congress to do what needs to be done.