Campaign advice for Democrats in 2010
I probably don’t have to tell Democrats to watch Martha Coakley’s campaign for the Massachusetts senate seat and then do exactly the opposite. That’s pretty obvious.
My advice to elected members of both houses of Congress: Change your leadership. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are dragging Democrats down. First, the easy one: Dump Reid. Democrats in general and Senate Democrats in particular are appearing to be hypocritical, blindly partisan enablers in covering for Reid’s outrageous racial remarks. The contrast with both their and Republicans’ handling of former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) (after his praise for Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential candidacy) is playing well for Republicans. Ultimate progressive blog Daily Kos now openly speculates that Reid may be bringing all Democrats down with him. The latest weekly Daily Kos poll shows Reid’s favorability rating down to 29% with 61% unfavorable. Rasmussen is in the same ballpark with 31% favorable. Back in October an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll registered only a 14% favorability rating for Reid. Frankly, Reid needs more time to devote to his own reelection campaign, in which he now trails relatively unknown Republicans by double digits.
Here in Missouri, I advise likely Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Robin Carnahan to condemn Reid now and threaten to withhold her vote for him as majority leader. Most Democratic senators, including Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, are reluctant to challenge the sitting majority leader out of fear of retribution on their state appropriations and other ways in which he could make their tenure miserable. But Robin doesn’t have that worry. By the time Robin takes her senate seat, Reid is probably gone. On the plus side, throwing Harry under the bus (D’oh! I hate that cliche), though a cheap ploy under the circumstances, would nevertheless make Robin look like a fearless, principled independent, an impression she would like to cultivate. Robin should do it! Other non-incumbent Democrat senate candidates should consider doing the same. Whoever does it first gets the best press.
House Democrats have a similar problem with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She registers just 35% favorable and 57% unfavorable in the latest Rasmussen poll and 42%-to-49% in the Daily Kos survey. The October NBC/Wall Street Journal poll put her favorability rating at just 26%. Her favorability numbers are worse than the lowest numbers former President George W. Bush ever recorded, and her unfavorables are actually worse than Reid’s. She is toxic to voters in all but the most progressive areas, as she (and especially her new private jet that she demanded the government buy for her so she wouldn’t have to stop and refuel when shuttling home to San Francisco) has become the symbol of what angry voters dislike about this Congress. If Republicans were smart, they would tie vulnerable Democrats to Pelosi and Reid instead of President Obama (whose favorability rating in the same Daily Kos poll is still 55%). Republicans will pummel red-district Democrat incumbents like Missouri’s Ike Skelton (who enjoy personal popularity with conservative constituents) with statistics of how closely they toed the line for Pelosi, pointing out that every “blue dog” Democrat votes to keep Pelosi as speaker. Replacing Pelosi could save 20 seats.
Next, instead of ramming through legislation on the power of your numbers with little or no discussion of the actual bills being passed, I advise Democrats to engage their Republican critics and discuss the issues, explain the merits of proposed legislation and persuade voters how it is in the public interest. Put the actual text of important bills out there for public inspection with time for meaningful discussion (not just 72 hours, and not when everybody is preoccupied with something else, like the Super Bowl). Try to look like you’re acting reasonably. At present, Republicans and “tea party” activists are winning the debate among independent voters pretty much by default. If your bill makes things better, explain why. And if it doesn’t, don’t enact it.
When campaigning, focus on the candidates in the contest, i.e., you and your opponent(s). Democrats this past year have wasted way too much time, effort and, most important, the attention of the voters, by attacking people who aren’t running for anything. While kicking Rush Limbaugh around never seems to get old, attacks on perennial whipping boys like George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich and new villains like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and bumbling national party chair Michael Steele are counter-productive and make Democrats look mean spirited. Palin, in particular, may be the new political “3rd rail” that Democrats need to avoid. Even progressive women who dislike Palin’s stands are offended when others (especially men) take cheap shots at her.
Next, to insure retaining control over Congress this year, Democrats need to go on the offensive. As I noted in my prior post, the President’s party loses an average of 16 house seats in an Administration’s first off-year election, and the ruling Democrats look to be facing losses that are worse than average. Their salvation is their 41-seat House cushion. The key to keeping control in the House and 60 working votes in the Senate (where loss of control is not realistically at risk) is to offset losses by taking some Republican seats. When Republicans seized control in 1994, all of their pickups counted because Democrats failed to take away a single GOP seat. The public’s anti-incumbent mood can cut both ways if Democrats file and support credible challengers against Republican incumbents. Republicans in Congress have even worse favorability ratings than Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of its targeted “Top Races” includes only 10 GOP incumbents. That’s not ambitious enough.
Finally, and most important, Democrat success depends on adherence to progressive principles. Politically disparate Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan demonstrated that voters react positively to strong leaders who stay true to their principles. After fair and open debate, Congress needs to use its majorities to send President Obama the Employee Free Choice Act and strong cap-and-trade and health care legislation. Weak bills are worse than no bill at all. Ideally the health care bill would be single-payer, because a compromise hybrid may not actually work. At minimum the final bill should have the promised “robust” public option and not discriminate against women needing to terminate unwanted pregnancies. But most important, Democrats need to “grow a pair” and finance it with the tax increases needed to generate the necessary revenue. Currently at least half the financing comes from cutting half a trillion dollars out of Medicare, a fact that risks losing even my support. If Democrats won’t make the fat cats bear their fair share of the load, they’re not worth fighting for.