09/26/2010 09:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Optimistic Scenario for Election Day

Tired of bleak political news? Here is an optimistic scenario of what just might happen on November 2: some Republican gains, but both houses of Congress remain Democratic.

It may well be that the anticipated Republican takeover of Congress peaked a little too soon and that the Tea Parties were too successful for their own good. As Democrats get more strategic about smoking out the core differences between the two parties, disaffected voters will think twice about electing lunatic fringe candidates.

Karl Rove, nobody's idea of a liberal, is in the doghouse with Sean Hannity and the Tea Party crowd because Rove has publicly said that some of the candidates who won Republican nominations are too far-right to get elected. If Karl Rove is worried about this risk to his grand designs, it may even be true.

The Democrats caught a few breaks, in the nomination of Tea Party nutcakes like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska. As the national media focuses on the campaign, the effects spread beyond increasing the likelihood of Democratic wins in these two states (which had previously been considered safe for Republicans.) The result will be to remind voters of the extremism of Republicans generally.

Democrats may also get lucky if the rumored John Boehner sleaze scandal turns out to be true, and Republicans dither while the media piles on and Boehner twists in the wind. On the other hand, if the story can't be proven, it strengthens Boehner.

But Democrats can't wait for random gifts from the political gods of Republican moral hypocrisy. They have to make their luck. In particular, they need to emphasize a few good polarizing issues where Republicans are on the wrong side of public opinion.

For starters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, under pressure from both the White House and her own more conservative deputy Steny Hoyer not to force the issue, should not back down on her plan to force a vote on tax relief to the bottom 98 percent of Americans but not the rich. Republicans hoped that by blocking a pre-election vote in the Senate, they would dissuade the House from acting and be spared embarrassment. They are extremely anxious about having to show their true colors on whether they are with the 98 or the 2.

Another core issue is Social Security. Several leading Republicans have flatly called for raising the retirement age or cutting benefits. Joe Miller, who beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP Alaska primary, actually opposes Social Security because it wasn't in the original 1789 Constitution. (Perhaps he should read the document, and take note of Article Five, which provides for amendments. He might also take note of the Roberts Court, which reinterprets the Constitution to its ideological convenience.)

But more importantly, are voters really going to vote for candidates who propose cutting benefits for seniors, raising the retirement age, or privatizing America's most popular and valued program? Not if Democrats keep reminding them of this core difference.

Unfortunately, some Democrats are also in the austerity camp, denying the party one of its most potent mobilizing issues, both for the Democratic base and for anxious swing voters.

The Campaign for America's Future has been promoting a letter signed by members of Congress pledging not to cut benefits, or raise the retirement age, or privatize Social Security in any way. So far, 100 House Democrats have signed.

This is not good enough. The vast majority of House Democrats and candidates need to take this pledge -- and challenge Republicans to do likewise. The House Democratic leadership should be leading this effort. If it embarrasses President Obama's fiscal commission, which is said to be close to a bipartisan bargain recommending Social Security cuts, so much the better.

Obama should take the pledge himself. Nothing differentiates Democrats from Republicans as powerfully or constructively as a strong defense of Social Security. For Democrats, this should be a core survival instinct on a level with, say, breathing.

Pollster Stanley Greenberg recently released an important survey revealing that the White House's favorite message for the midterm campaign -- don't turn the government back to the people who caused this mess -- is weak tea. The better message, Greenberg finds, is that we need to change Washington, be for the middle class, and against Wall Street, and that Republicans, despite their rhetoric, are not on the side of regular people if you look at what they actually stand for.

The latest Greenberg polling, without criticizing Obama's political advisers per se, tests the preferred White House messaging against the stronger stuff. Greenberg writes, summarizing his findings:

The weakest [Democratic] messages assert we should "go forward, not back." Voters are not moved by Democratic messages that say 'go forward, not back,' mention President Bush, compare then and now, or even that hint the economy is "showing signs of progress."

The Democrats are slowly getting better at delivering a tougher message. The question is whether they will become more effective in time.

Of course, even if the Democrats hold Congress they will lose what's left of their working majority, which is perhaps ten votes on a good day in the House and about nothing in the Senate. The strong measures that the nation needs to secure an economic recovery will very likely be blocked, and Obama will be advised to move to the right. And then the issue becomes whether the Republicans will take the fall for blocking them, or whether they will continue to enjoy a free ride. On all fronts, the cure for drift is more effective leadership.

And that's the hopeful story, folks. I'll spare you the more pessimistic one.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect, and a senior Fellow at Demos, His latest book is "A Presidency in Peril."