Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is Everything Coming Up Roses for Democrats?

Jonathan Chait thinks that, thanks to the Republicans’s politically suicidal embrace of the Paul Ryan budget, the Democrats have already clawed their way out of the electoral hole they dug for themselves in 2010. That, at any rate, is the lesson he’s drawing from polls showing that, not only have Republicans lost their once formidable lead in the generic ballot, but that a Democrat Kathy Hochul is favored to win today’s special election in a heavily Republican district in upstate New York:
“Yes, the race is almost certainly an outlier, in the sense that if Democrats everywhere could overperform the partisan division of their district as much as Kathy Hochul seems likely to, then they’ll easily sweep control of the House next year. That seems unlikely. Even as an outlier, though, this race fits together with other data to tell us that the political landscape has fundamentally shifted in the six months since the last elections. . . .

“The race has centered almost entirely around the exact theme that Democrats plan to employ in the next election cycle. All this suggests the party has gotten deep traction on the issue, and that the public can react against the policies of the House GOP. The political landscape that produced the Republican sweep of 2010 is gone. Just what replaces it remains to be seen.”
Chait isn't talking through his hat; he marshals some pretty impressive polling data in support of his thesis. Yet we all know that special elections and generic polling data have limited predictive value this far from a general election.

For my money, the best evidence that Chait’s onto something is the fact that leading Democratic politicians, who presumably have more finely honed political instincts and access to better polling data, are acting as if they think he’s right. Why else, for example, would Chuck Schumer be saying that the Democratic Senate has no more urgent business than holding a vote on the Ryan budget even though it hasn’t passed a budget of its own since 2009? Evidently, he's betting that the Ryan budget will be an albatross around Republican necks and that no one will notice that Democratic necks are unemcumbered only because they shirked their governing responsibilities.

You can’t help but noticing, however, that Republicans don’t seem at all reluctant to take the other side of Schumer’s bet. They've already forced a humiliating capitulation from Newt Gingrich by treating him like leper for even suggesting that the Ryan budget is a political step too far. And it seems likely that, aside from a few weak-kneed northeasterners like Scott Brown, Senate Republicans are ready either to stand behind Ryan budget or dissent from it only after they've offered budget proposals of their own.  They probably figure that demonstrating their solidarity now, even with respect to a budget with some unpopular Medicare provisions, will pay dividends down the road. (See Michael Tomasky here.)

That makes some sense too. The Ryan budget, after all, is only an aspirational document mostly about the post-2012 future that hasn't the slightest chance of making it into law anytime soon.  It will soon be eclipsed in the public consciousness by cutthroat negotiations over the debt ceiling and actual appropriations and a presidential campaign. As things now stand, a reasonably unified Republican congressional caucus is likely to get the better of a Democratic caucus that's too divided to pass a budget of it own in those negotiations between now and 2012.  And by the time the Republicans settle on a presidential candidate in early 2012, his governing priorities will probably take the rough edges off of Ryan's anyway.

Moreover, although the Ryan budget has its unpopular features, embracing it is Republicans's way of showing that they’re serious about restoring the federal government's solvency. What better demonstration could there be that Democrats haven't been serious than the fact that they’ve been too timid, and too divided, to pass a budget that has any unpopular features of its own for two years?  At least people are talking about the Ryan budget.  Nobody's saying a word about the budget Obama laid out in February or his much-hyped address responding to the Ryan budget last month because they were never taken seriously as a statement of governing priorities.  Republicans are betting that Democrats will have to come clean about their budgetary priorities sooner or later, and it will level the budgetary playing field when they do.

For all I know, Chait and Schumer are right that the political landscape is shifting the Democrats's way. But if they are, that might not be a cause for unambivalent celebraton in liberal circles.  It just might mean that the best way for Democrats to prosper electorally is to surrender some more ideological and public policy ground to the Republicans.

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