The simplest way to win an election cycle is to win the argument in the middle. If you can convince most persuadable people that you have better ideas, you can usually gain seats. Yet, sometimes that is not enough. In certain cycles, your base is depressed and your opposition is riled up, and you can’t gain seats or avoid losing them by making your case in the middle. That’s essentially the problem George W. Bush faced during his 2004 reelection campaign. To win, he had to pull out all the stops to get his base riled up and motivated to vote. In the decisive state of Ohio, the Republicans were able to produce record turnout in small, rural churchgoing areas. That, combined with a deliberate shortage of voting machines in the Democratic strongholds was just enough to sway the national election (with perhaps a few shenanigans thrown in for good measure).
Current polling shows that we are entering an election cycle in which general opinion of the two parties is closely split, but in which Republicans report much greater enthusiasm about voting. Overall, the Republican Party is less popular and their leaders are less popular than Democratic leaders. But, despite that, all knowledgeable analysts currently predict large gains for the Republicans based on the enthusiasm differential. If nothing changes, they’ll be right.
The Obama administration has a plan to change things.
“Let’s be clear — these are not Democratic voters,” Cornell Belcher, the Obama campaign pollster, cautioned me. “They’re Obama voters.” The lesson that Plouffe and his operation took away from the dismal 2009 elections is that Obama can act like a matchmaker of sorts, introducing the party’s candidates to new voters and vouching for their intentions, but it’s only going to matter if the candidates themselves embrace the so-called new politics. What that means, practically speaking, is that the White House is urging candidates to divert a fair amount of their time and money — traditionally used for buying TV ads and rallying core constituencies — to courting volunteers and voters who haven’t generally been reliable Democrats.
In other words, the plan is to use Organizing for America to change the shape of the typical midterm electorate. This isn’t a plan to turn out the traditional base. That’s always part of any plan. This is a plan to turn out Obama’s base. It’s hard to define his base because it is both more progressive (young, racially diverse) and independent thinking (Colin Powell, Lincoln Chafee, Chuck Hagel) than the Democratic base. You could call it the Howard Dean-plus base. It incorporates nearly all of the people who were galvanized by Dean’s defiant 2004 presidential campaign with a good portion of the center-right reality-based Establishment. It’s a coalition big enough to give the Democrats about 60% of the seats in Congress. But it is an uneasy relationship for two reasons.
Here’s how Tom Sullivan describes the tensions between the more moderate Establishment at the DNC and their progressive grassroots offshoot, the OFA.
….Obama never earned his stripes in the party trenches before running for office and never worked as a party strategist. He is “a genuine outsider who spends a fair amount of energy reassuring Democrats that he really does care about the organization.”
OFA may have “virtually supplanted the party structure.” But there is a difference between moving in and fitting in. As in 2008, there is the same recurring question: Are OFA’s activities meant to help the party or to help OFA? So long as the question still gets asked at the county level, the marriage of the DNC and OFA will remain unconsummated.
There remains “something of a cultural chasm between the White House and the party apparatus,” Bai writes. Older Democrats “have a harder time imagining that a bunch of volunteers and a dozen virtual town-hall meetings are going to matter more than labor endorsements and some killer 30-second spots.” Insiders remain unconvinced that OFA is anything more than a fad, and Obama’s election anything more than a fluke fueled by voter dissatisfaction and “an absurd amount of money.”
Left unsaid is that the OFA is a group of community organizers who have a much more progressive profile than the employees at rest of the DNC or than the set of Democratic elected officials. In addition, the traditional powers in the party are not yet sold on the model that Obama used to win the presidency. Even if it worked for him, it’s not certain that it can work for everyone else.
The second strain on Obama’s coalition is that the center-right contingent supported Obama largely as the lesser of two evils. They may have liked his character and personality, but they are traditional Republicans and are not supportive of large progressive reforms. The harder Obama pushes his agenda, the more his centrist base gets uneasy or looks to defect. By the same token, the more Obama compromises and waters down his promises, the more disenchanted and demotivated his progressive base becomes, leading to depressed turnout among the larger part of his base.
Because there is no way to resolve this dispute to the satisfaction of his entire base, the best way to keep them in the fold is simply to be successful. If he passes legislation that addresses the country’s problems, then he will be seen as effective and as a capable leader. The progressives may grumble that it doesn’t go far enough and the former Republicans may feel that it goes way too far, but they’ll have a begrudging respect for his ability to get things done.
This is why the Party of No strategy in in effect. By opposing everything in lockstep, the Republican Party forces Obama to govern strictly by what can attract the votes of all 59 of his senators (including Ben Nelson) and at least one Republican (usually, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, or Scott Brown). This actually helps Obama keep his disenchanted Republican base, but it creates horrible divisions in his progressive base. That is the intent of the Party of No strategy, and it is working like a charm. Democrats are depressed despite having what is indisputably the most prolific and progressive Congress since 1965-66. They’re depressed because the solutions have had to pass the muster of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, and, thus, have fallen far short of what progressive solutions would be. That’s just a structural problem with our Constitution and our Senate rules. No president could overcome them without first breaking down the unity in the Party of No strategy. But, since, according to polls, it is working so well, there have been no cracks in the Party of No strategy. The Republicans are happy to let the economy tank (with the side benefit of keeping what does pass Congress as moderate as possible) because they think they will be rewarded at the polls.
The Obama plan is to go back to the OFA grassroots model and organize the districts. Meanwhile, the traditional DNC is being much more aggressive in doing opposition research. As in 1994, a lot of Republican candidates are not state legislators with political experience, but loony-bin fruitcakes fed on nothing but right-wing radio and some grievance about how government regulation messed with their auto dealerships or whatever. Half of them have failed to pay their taxes or have hired undocumented workers or have declared their house a farm (for the tax benefit) because they own four donkeys.
All of this is good solid strategy. Expose the opposition for the lightweight kooks and petty criminals that they are, organize the base that won the last election, and do what it takes to pass something on every major issue on your agenda.
But there is another component, and it is the traditional one. Winning the argument. The Democrats should not concede the argument because the Republicans don’t have one. That’s what Joe Biden was getting at when he predicted to Mike Allen of Politico that things won’t turn out so badly in November.
“I mean this in a literal sense — it’s going to sound partisan, but I mean it literally: I know what the Republicans are against. I have no notion of what they’re for. Now, I’m not being facetious now. I don’t know what their answer is, when they talk about taking down health care. Well, what are they for?”
To avoid a disastrous November, the Democrats must do all four of these things. First, organize. Second, pass legislation. Third, expose the opposition. And fourth, win the argument.