Letting Go

February 23, 2010

Dick Morris should be watching his mailbox, because his royalty checks should start arriving any day now.

The columnist, Fox News commentator and former adviser to President Clinton is widely credited with selling the concept of “triangulation” to Clinton after Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994. The idea was the president should position himself distinctly from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, advocating a presumably more pragmatic option.

It seems President Obama is headed to that same place, although he is starting before the midterm elections.

Recently the movie “Titanic” replayed on cable for about the millionth time. When I heard Kate Winslet‘s Rose Dewitt Bukater, holding the hand of the doomed Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he shivered in frigid North Atlantic waters, repeatedly assuring him that “I’ll never let go,” it occurred to me that congressional Democrats should not expect to hear that from Obama. Like Winslet’s character, he eventually has to let go, and doing that might help him survive.

While Capitol Hill lives in a two-party culture, America is now in a three-party mode, with independents now the largest party. And with independent polling showing congressional approval ratings at historic lows, why wouldn’t Obama let go to save himself? His own job approval ratings are still better. Who can blame him?

With their current majority status dangling precariously, it is highly unlikely that congressional Democrats, as a group, will be able to repair their badly disfigured image between now and November.

Unemployment is likely to stay near 10 percent, something even the administration’s own economists concede in their recent Economic Report of the President.

The president’s economic advisers are predicting employment to increase an average of 95,000 jobs this year, while the National Association for Business Economics’ survey of its members predicts 103,000. But it is widely thought that about 100,000 new jobs need to be created each month just to keep up with population growth. And that doesn’t keep up with those who are unemployed and have stopped looking — and thus aren’t reflected in the unemployment rate — but will eventually start looking again.

Furthermore, even if some health care reform gets through, it’s been so sadly maligned that even in the unlikely event they pass something and it turns out to be a solid product, it’s pretty unlikely that voters will see it as such between now and November.

In short, the trajectory of this election looks horrific for Democrats. In this kind of environment, days that go by without some “game-changing” development benefiting the GOP in a state or district are the exception, not the rule.

After all, what vigilant Republicans with a shred of ambition in their bodies would pass up a year like this to run for something?

Democrats’ only hope of staying in power is to defend their House majority, one seat at a time. Unfortunately for them, no magic elixir is going to do the trick.

One top Democratic pollster privately said before Christmas, when asked how his party could save its majority, “hire the best opposition researcher they can find” and destroy their opponents early and often. But at times when the mood is so sour, the atmosphere so poisonous, voters are often willing to overlook significant flaws to send Washington a message.

As such, Democrats might not be able to defeat a Republican challenger on the charge of a late tax payment or one bad vote in a state legislature. They are going to need to save their money and focus for the races in which their opposition research is truly damning and could deem the opposing candidate unacceptable to the average voter.

Already there are plenty of GOP candidates who carry baggage, and some of them will be sorted out in primaries — some civil and some more ugly. And as we move from spring to summer to fall, we will be talking more and more about nasty Republican primaries and less about Democratic retirements.

But given the state of the economy and Democrats’ very serious problems, it’s more likely that feuding within the GOP family and between the GOP and other third party actors like the Tea Party will slow, rather than reverse, Republicans’ momentum.

By the fall, when the stage is set, Democratic House leaders will face a painful choice: Do they play defense in a large number, say 70-80 seats, and try to give themselves as many opportunities as possible to hold onto as much ground as they can?

Or will they leave a number of incumbents to fend for themselves, playing hard in 40-50 races, just enough to hold onto their majority but leaving very little margin for error?

The best guess is that the Democratic tacticians that built this large majority are already contemplating the latter.
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