Political Animal


March 04, 2013 3:36 PM A Congressional Strategy For Now and Later

By Ed Kilgore

It’s a sad sign of the condition of political journalism (or of WaPo editing) that two solid reporters, Scott Wilson and Philip Rucker, make it through a fairly lengthy piece on the president’s midterm election strategy without mentioning, much less explaining, the large structural obstacles to a Democratic takeover of the House in 2014. Yeah, they do mention the history of poor performance by the party controlling the White House in second-term midterms (1998 is the only exception to the “rule” against gains). But there’s nothing about redistricting, the built-in GOP advantages in House races due to more efficient vote distribution, or the turnout problem Democrats now face in midterms featuring (since time immemorial) a older and whiter electorate.

Salon’s Steve Kornacki discusses these factors in suggesting that any Obama-led drive for a House victory in 2014 is at best a long shot (I’d add to Steve’s analysis that even a House takeover might have a limited impact if Republicans retain veto power in the Senate and Harry Reid continues to insist on bipartisan approval for any filibuster reforms).

Koracki suggests a better avenue for second-term legislative gains by Obama might be promoting divisions in the opposition. After all, the House GOP leadership has already seen fit to abandon the Hastert Rule three times this year:

[A]s long as the Republicans maintain a Tea Party posture on fiscal issues, Obama’s second term will be a frustrating one for Democrats. But it probably won’t be as frustrating as the second half of his first term. This time around, there appears to be enough dissension and enough nervousness within the GOP’s ranks for the White House to rack up some real achievements. So while winning back the House would is the ideal scenario for Democrats, they might want to pursue a back-up plan too, one aimed at ratcheting up the turmoil within the GOP and creating more openings for compromise.

I’m not sure there’s really a conflict between these two potential Obama strategies, so long as they are pursued realistically. Dealing harshly with the majority Tea Party faction of the GOP should lower that party’s approval ratings to the point where vulnerable Members might want to distance themselves from the extremism, aside from the fact that Obama’s more conspicuous toughness towards the opposition increases their anti-Obama derangement in ways that increase Republican self-isolation. If the administration and its congressional allies can find ways to accomplish things (other than preventing GOP sabotage of first-term accomplishments), that’s great; otherwise they may well be setting the table for 2016, when both a Democratic House and even a supermajority in the Senate can become significantly more likely. Every seat won in 2014 helps that prospect, so there’s no harm in going for the gold now as well as later.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on March 04, 2013 4:13 PM:

    Let's see how two factors turn out, before we write-off the Democrats chances at the House in 2014:

    - The "Sequester," which may hurt less econommically diversified areas of the country.
    From what I know, more rural Red States and Districts may be more affected by cuts to defense and the military, than more urban ans suburban ones.
    An area with a lot of defense and military contractors, could be worse off than ones which depend on a blend of industries and businesses.

    - And Obamacare, which will finally become the law of the land in 2014.

    Those two are jokers in the gerrymandered deck the Republicans have dealt themselves across the country.

    Nothing is guaranteed.

    But, with OFA (Obama For America), continuing to keep activists in areas, reminding people, unlike in 2010, to vote in the mid-terms, we may yet see, if not a Democratic House, at least one that's closer to 50-50, which will bode well for 2016.

    In the meantime, Conservatives and Republicans pray every day for some catastrophic terrorist event on American soil, while they're busy trying to provide an economic catastrophe, via "Austerity" and "Sequestration," to hang around Obama's and the Democrats necks.

  • danimal on March 04, 2013 4:46 PM:

    Yes, the president's party usually suffers at the six-year mark. But this is not foreordained. I want to scream at the simplistic "Dems have horrible headwinds in 2014" headlines.

    The six-year itch usually irritates because the public is tired of the presidential party running out of issues. After six years of implementing (insert one) liberal/conservative/moderate legislative priorities, the in-party simply runs out of issues and energy. This will not be the case in 2014. Ironically, because of GOP obstruction, the unfinished agenda items that motivate Dems and liberals are still on the table, and the obstruction may be a significant motivator for Dems and liberals to rush to the polls.

    Disgust with the GOP is at all time highs, and without a course correction that doesn't appear likely, the GOP will be on the defensive. Memories of the Tea Party and the energized conservatives in 2010 are just that, memories.

    There is nothing to say that anyone knows the lay of the land in 2014. Gerrymandering is inherently risky, as the same lines that are manipulated to produce close GOP favorites can also make a large number of seats competitive if the GOP brand suffers a 5 or 10 drop in favorability. Watch for Republican retirements in this fall and winter; if they are numerous that will be a sign that 2014 is a lot more winnable than is commonly assumed in this blog and througout the political punditry class.

  • LAC on March 04, 2013 5:03 PM:

    @cundgulag - thank you! I am really tired of Steven Kornacki and the rest of the brain drain trust at Salon with their predictions and "insight". All the fluffing about the President losing this base and losing that base in 2012 is all I need to know about the weight of their insight. Nothing is written in stone.

  • Gandlaf on March 04, 2013 5:06 PM:

    danimal you should be writing for this blog. Your a far sight more on the money than the pundits are including Ed.

  • Bokonon on March 04, 2013 5:16 PM:

    The GOP doesn't have coherent policies or solutions right now. What they have is opposition. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, extremism in the pursuit of that opposition is no vice. And that in turn is precisely because the GOP currently feeling enough electoral pain or accountability. Not enough pain, anyway, to break the GOP out of their rigid, impervious, hermetic fortress of donors, interest groups, safe districts and friendly conservative media.

    The only public opinion that matters is opinion from inside the fortress.

    And because of that, the GOP will probably continue to maintain this extreme, rigid, bug-eyed, enraged, obstructive and belligerent posture until someone finally breaches those fortress walls. But it is a question of whether that time horizon will favor a breach happening first ... or will time will instead favor the GOP simply wearing the public out, while finding a new way to present their message, or finding that national events will eventually drive voters their way. As things happened in the 2000 and 2010 elections.

    The GOP seems to be banking on a long siege, and outwaiting public opinion.

    And in the mean time? They don't seem to mind failure and dysfunction.

  • Patience on March 05, 2013 9:26 AM:

    As a Democrat, I intend to put whatever political money I can over the next two years towards upping the number of House Democrats who win in the 2014 cycle. I honestly don't care if the Democrats lose the Senate; I'm fine with losing Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia next year if that means the Republicans will take the opportunity to kill the filibuster and get the Senate working as an institution again. In 2016, we'll have a presidential headwind and the chance to take back seats in Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and maybe even win Iowa and New Hampshire.