I hope it isn’t true that the Democrats would need a +13 advantage on the generic ballot in order to win back the House of Representatives in 2014. Alan I. Abramowitz’s analysis is solid and it’s based on a model which looks at all 17 midterm elections since the end of World War Two. The problem is that so many of those midterms had individualized factors that should outweigh any effort to generalize. I’m just going to off the top of my head here:

1946: the shock of the post-war economy.
1950: the beginning of the Korean War.
1954: nothing in particular stands out for me.
1958: economic recession.
1962: Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis.
1966: backlash against Civil Rights, Vietnam War.
1970: backlash against expansion of Vietnam War.
1974: Watergate.
1978: struggling economy.
1982: economic recession.
1986: Iran-Contra.
1990: Persian Gulf War
1998: L’affaire Lewinsky/impeachment
2002: post 9/11 era.
2006: Iraq War fatigue.
2010: The Great Recession.

Only in 1998 and 2002 did the president’s party make gains in the House. And the impeachment of the president and the 9/11 attacks were highly anomalous events. But it’s pretty easy to see that there were usually good reasons for the citizens of this country to be pissed off at the administration. In some cases, the anger was somewhat amorphous and based in a generalized economic anxiety, but more often people were outraged by scandal or feeling war-weary.

As I look forward to 2014, I cannot fit it into any of these 17 previous examples. The closest I can get is 1998, because that is the only example that matches up with the congressional overreach we are seeing from Republicans. But the president was badly damaged by scandal and the economy was booming, which doesn’t align with our present situation at all. Congressional approval is at 13%, which is historically low. Depending on the polling outfit, the Democrats’ generic ballot advantage is currently somewhere between four and eight percent. The president’s approval rating is narrowly positive, albeit with more strongly disapproving than strongly approving. The Democrats look to be in good shape to win seats, but not enough to win the House.

DCCC chairman Steve Israel appears to be pursuing a modified Ramn Emanuel approach to winning back the House. He’s more focused on suburban seats than the rural or southern seats that Emanuel targeted, but he’s seeking non-ideological candidates who he hopes will match the ambivalent attitudes seen in the socially moderate tax-averse communities that ring our cities.

That may work in districts where the voters preferred Mitt Romney but I think it’s a dangerous strategy if it means that the party isn’t going to run on the GOP being the biggest obstacle to addressing the problems the country is facing. Obviously, we have to look at each district individually. In some places, the electorate is just hostile to the president, but not necessarily his party. In other places, the electorate is with the Democrats on social issues but against them on fiscal issues. In still other places, the electorate is pretty solidly with the Republicans on social issues but potentially receptive to the Democrats on fiscal issues. I think Rep. Israel is hoping to fit candidates to their districts and run against a very unpopular Congress. For that strategy to be successful, it kind of precludes a national message or an effort to go all out to win the fiscal argument. Instead, the DCCC will emphasize that their candidates are non-ideological and above partisan bickering. They are problem-solvers. They’ll go to Washington to end the gridlock.

The persuadable voters in this country may like the sound of that (they did as recently as 2008), but it’s basically bullshit. And it cuts off any effort to make a populist pitch for more progressive economic policies. That doesn’t mean it can’t work. If the GOP is too pinned down on social issues, making affluent voters comfortable with the Democratic Party’s tax policies, for example, can deliver a bunch of suburban seats. I would prefer, however, a more honest and directly partisan approach that paints the GOP as a radical southern party that is grossly out of touch with the values of the people living outside of New York, Philly, DC, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, etc. Focusing on their refusal to compromise and the damage they are doing to the economy through multiple hostage crises and forced austerity is a better way to go, and it can play even in the South, where the social issues don’t cut our way. We’re basically using the same argument that Reagan did when he said the Democratic Party is no longer your father’s Democratic Party.

I’m a partisan, so naturally I am uncomfortable with post-partisan strategies. But I am also highly pragmatic and results-oriented. I can see why the DCCC is pursuing this strategy and also how it might work. But I think they are playing small ball. “Small ball” is a baseball term that refers to a strategy that emphasizes bunting, stealing bases, and moving runners along the bases with the intent of scoring a single run, rather than sitting back and waiting for the three-run homer. The result is that you have more innings in which you score but fewer innings in which you score a lot. Another baseball analogy is “swinging for the fences.” If you do that, you hit more home runs but you also strike out a lot.

In this case, there are two things to consider. One is scoring. We want to win back the House. But the other is governing. On the governing side, we have two further considerations. First, what kind of representatives will we have elected? Are they going to vote with us on the tough issues or vote against us to cover their backsides? Second, will we have won the argument and changed the electorate so that the people we elect won’t have to worry so much about their backsides?

It’s these latter two considerations that worry me. Since our odds of winning the House are not good in the first place, I’d rather swing for the fences than try to scratch out the narrowest of victories.

What do you think?

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