Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How Do You Prepare For a Bloodbath?

I don’t know enough about electioneering to make confident predictions about what’s going to happen in next November’s midterms, especially inasmuch as most of the facts at my disposal come to me by way of people grinding a partisan axe. But when a militantly Democratic pollster like Stanley Greenberg starts putting his name to polling results like this, commissioned by NPR no less, I know enough to take what he says seriously (my emphasis):

“A new public opinion survey for NPR shows just how difficult it will be for Democrats to avoid big losses in the House this November.

“Democrat Stan Greenberg and Republican Glen Bolger conducted the first public battleground poll of this election cycle. They chose the 70 House districts experts regard as most likely to oust incumbents this fall. What they found was grim news for Democrats.

“For this poll, Bolger and Greenberg chose the districts where incumbents are considered the most vulnerable, and, in the case of open seats, the ones most likely to switch party control in November. Sixty are currently held by Democrats — many of whom won these seats even when voters in the same district preferred Republican John McCain for president in 2008. The other 10 districts are the flip side — held by Republicans in the House, even though their voters went for Barack Obama in 2008.

“These are this year's swing seats — the political terrain where the battle for control of the House of Representatives will be won or lost. In this battleground, voters are choosing Republicans over Democrats 49 percent to 41 percent.”
Peter Wehner gleefully entitles his post about the same poll: “There Will Be Blood.” In case you’re inclined to dismiss that as conservative wishful thinking, you should know that Wehner is only channeling the conclusion of a post by the reliably liberal Jonathan Chait entitled: “Yup, November Will Be A Bloodbath.”

This raises an interesting question: what’s the rational way for a sitting president to respond when, owing to conditions he can’t change between now and November, he’s headed for an electoral bloodbath in which most of the bleeding will be done by him and his party? Two approaches come readily to mind.

First, a president could find such circumstances ideologically liberating. He could decide that, since his party’s electoral defeat is a foregone conclusion anyway, he may as well swing for the ideological fences. That’s the logic behind the argument that Obama has nothing much to lose by using the Gulf oil spill as an occasion to reopen the debate over Cap-and-Trade that I considered here.

The problem with this approach is that Obama's still going to need a viable governing agenda after November, even if there are a lot fewer congressional Democrats to help him implement it. Hauling out proposals for realizing his most cherished objectives now before he suffers a humiliating defeat may well make them politically toxic for the rest of his presidency.  (Remember what happened to HillaryCare after the 1994 mid-terms.)  If climate-change legislation is one of Obama's principal objectives, it might make more sense to keep it on the shelf so that it can be dusted off at a more opportune time.

That’s the second approach, which George Bush used leading up to the Republican wipe-out of 2006. His most cherished objective was bringing the Iraq war to a satisfactory conclusion. He probably knew by the summer of 2006 that he’d have to clean house in Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department and the military command structure and implement a new military strategy. Yet he resisted making any moves in that direction until after the election. As a result his surge strategy, championed by untainted figures like David Petraeus and Robert Gates, got a fair hearing. That wasn’t enough to win the support of any congressional Democrats, but it did stem the tide of defections within the Republican Party well enough to enable Bush to implement the surge over Democratic objections.

I've speculated before that Obama’s determination that his party run on ObamaCare in the midterms is evidence that he and his White House have succumbed to the fallacy of sunk costs. Maybe it makes more sense than I thought.

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