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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Flipping the Mid-Terms

Since the Civil War, only two presidents, FDR in 1934 and Bush in 2002, have seen their party gain seats in the House and Senate as a result of their first mid term elections. FDR broke the pattern with bold economic reforms that inspired confidence in his personal competence and his party, and added 9 Senate seats and 9 House seats for Democrats. Bush did it as a saber-rattling cheerleader at a time when swing voters were receptive, adding 8 House members and 2 Senators to the GOP herd.
Interesting, that these two exceptions were achieved by America’s best and worst presidents, the four-termer who lead the world to economic recovery and won two wars; and the other who gave us an economic disaster of historic magnitude and budget-busting military entanglements of dubious purpose.
One common denominator here might be that bold action, rooted in a patriotic appeal early in a first Administration, can sometimes win an upset. Another common denominator is that both made highly-effective use of the bully-pulpit, more specifically the power of the President to make news. FDR shrewdly leveraged the available media of his day (e.g. radio fireside chats, schmoozing journalists) to maximum advantage, making the New Deal a patriotic enterprise in the minds of swing voters. Both FDR and Bush were cheerleaders. Bush quite literally began honing his chops as a cheerleader for his high school’s athletic teams, and he also benefited from the rising power of conservative media – Fox News and wingnut radio in particular.
While some would say that the Iraq war was the pivotal event that gave the GOP it’s win in ’02, to give W fair credit, he worked his tail off for his Party in 2002. By October of that year, for example, he had held 8 large public rallies expressly for Republican candidates, not merely the usual fund-raisers with wealthy contributors – a lesson that might benefit Obama on Nov. 2nd.
Presidential cheer-leading is more complicated now. By 2006, Bush had squandered all of his media capital, and the six-year itch” took hold as voters gave upsets to the Democrats. Plus, the power of the internet took a quantum leap forward as a force in political communication, with Democrats benefiting most. The internet is even more potent today as a political opinion-shaper.
So the question is worth raising, is there any chance the Dems could actually pick-up seats in congress in November?
Most pundits say no, with their poll-based projections of Democratic losses in the range of 20-30 House seats and 3-6 Senate seats. In the past 17 midterm elections, the president’s party has lost an average 28 House seats, and an average loss of 4 Senate seats. Hard to find many who think Dems could flip the reality in the other direction. The DCCC has even created a “Frontline Program” to protect a designated 40 House seats believed to be in endangered by the GOP. On the other hand, the GOP’s RCCC has designated the 25 most vulnerable House seats they hold to be protected by their “Patriot Program” fund-raising initiative.
Political upsets happen, and they are never based on abandoning all hope because of polls. A favorable turn of events can help. More likely, however, they require a critical mass of pro-Democratic activists to embrace the challenge with undaunted determination. Such an activist coalition would include Democratic candidates, their staffs, Democratic party workers, blogosphere and community activists and progressive journalists, ideally working together as much as possible in harmonizing messaging and tapping the power of their formidable echo-chamber. If the GOP’s edge has been Party discipline, as seems a fair assessment, the Dems’ edge could be a more advanced echo-chamber that now reaches nearly all homes in suburban swing districts.
The stakes are enormous. Imagine what Democrats could do with a real majority of progressives in their congressional ranks, which could be a small as 3 Senate pick-ups and a dozen House seats. Unlikely, probably – but not totally out of the range of possibility given a little luck and some hard work.
On the outside chance that ‘creative visualization’ can have some political benefits, let’s entertain event scenarios in which the Democrats actually gain Senate and House seats in the 2010 midterms. In no particular order, here’s a few:

Our military captures/destroys bin Laden and al Qeda’s top leaders at the optimum moment, sometime between the end of summer and the November vote. Barring the apprehension of bin Laden, however, it’s not easy to visualize any great military victories in Afghanistan before November that could benefit the President’s party.
The economy starts to bloom more energetically than expected. This may be our best shot. There are some signs of an upturn in the making.
Democratic memes concerning health care reform take root in swing voter attitudes (Some combination of “Damn, this health reform deal is better than I thought” and “Jeez, those Republicans really have no credible alternatives). This is one of the few ways Democratic activists can have a deliberate impact. And, President Obama’s strategy of letting congress shape health care reform, without much white house involvement, now looks pretty good, in comparison to the Clinton Administration’s more ‘hands on’ strategy.
The progressive blogosphere should develop some new ways to reach out to a broader constituency, instead of preaching to already-converted liberals. Democrats in general need some creative initiatives to reach swing voters with memes and messages in key districts. Outlets like YouTube and streaming video in general open up new realms of message transmission, although they won’t be widely rooted among less than tech-savvy voters until a couple of mid-terms later. The time is ripe, however, for some creative meme propagation.
Another rash of GOP scandals kicks in. Always possible, given the greed-driven basis of many Republican campaigns, though fortuitous timing is unlikely.

In the longer term, it’s clear that Democrats have to develop a program to increase turnout in off-year elections, particularly among friendly constituencies. Some innovative ideas are urgently-needed here. We should also support a program to accelerate naturalization to increase the universe of Dem-favoring registered voters.
No doubt there are other possible events and trends that could flip to Nov 2nd outcome in Democrats’ favor. The biggest mistake would be to say, “Well, the President’s Party always loses seats in the mid-terms,” and cede unnecessary ground to the Republicans. Even given a favorable turn of events, heightened Democratic activism is needed for our optimum performance in the 2010 mid-terms. Our best possible New Year’s resolution would be to sound the knell for mid-term apathy in the Democratic Party.

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