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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Pre-Mortem Post-Mortem

Assuming the representation of cell-phone-only respondents has been properly addressed in the most recent polls and absent a Democratic midterm turnout juggernaut of historic proportions, it appears likely that Republicans will win a majority in the House. Sabato predicts a net GOP pick-up of 55 House seats, with 39 needed to win a majority. Nate Silver sees the GOP gaining about 53 seats. Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium predicts a 52 seat increase for the Republicans. There seems to be a consensus among poll analysts that Dems will narrowly hold the senate.
Wednesday will bring the soul-searching, finger-pointing and “what if?” scenarios Eugene Robinson touched on in his WaPo column last week. As Robinson put it:

What if President Obama and the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill had pushed through an authentic, righteous, no-holds-barred progressive agenda, perhaps with a thick overlay of pitchfork populism? How different might the political landscape look? Would predictions for the party’s prospects on Election Day still range from gloom all the way to doom? Or would triumphant Democrats be preparing to leave the GOP — or what remained of it — dazed and confused?
This question is being asked, in all seriousness, by thoughtful progressives. They argue that the Obama administration’s political mistake wasn’t pushing its liberal program too hard but not pushing it hard enough. And they contend that the White House seriously misread both the public anger and the national interest when it came to dealing with Wall Street’s greedy excesses — punishing miscreant bankers with love taps rather than cudgel and mace.

Numerous progressives have expressed versions of this contention, none more persuasively or with more cred than Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who has eloquently argued that the Administration’s stimulus was way too weak. And had Obama tweaked his Wall St. reform agenda with a little more “pitchfork populism,” who knows, it might have helped Dems some.
But Robinson also sees a sort of progressive myopia regarding the Republicans numerical strength in congress:

The problem is that for all the talk of changing the way Washington works, you still have to get actual legislation through an actual Congress. In the House, Democratic ranks are swollen with Blue Dogs and other moderates, many of them elected in swing districts as part of the 2008 Democratic landslide. The votes for a full-fledged progressive agenda — single-payer health care, for example — simply were not there.
In the Senate, the terrain was even less favorable. With the Republican caucus voting no as a bloc, passing any piece of legislation meant making concessions and compromises to keep together the needed 60 votes to bring a bill to the floor. The votes weren’t there for a health-care bill that would have been cleaner and more transformative than the one that passed, or for climate-change legislation with teeth, or for rules that could really transform Wall Street’s toxic culture, or for . . . fill in the blank.

Robinson concedes that progressives make some credible points and that President Obama’s unrequited bipartisan outreach amounted to “self-defeating concessions to Republicans who had no good-faith intention of seeking compromise.” That Obama had to make a strong initial appeal for bipartisan support is to me defensible. But the continued outreach to Republicans, which met with repeated rejection, appeared to waste time and political capital.
Robinson less persuasively dismisses the contention that Dems should have put jobs before HCR, noting “there’s no way the economy could recover 8 million jobs so quickly, no matter what Washington did. And health-care reform would still be a distant dream.”
Nobody expected the recovery of all 8 million jobs in two years, but a larger reduction in unemployment may have been possible. If Dems made 2010 the “year of jobs,” as William Galston argued, it may well have helped them. Robinson is likely right, however, that the “jobs first” strategy would have precluded any significant health care reform, even if it meant that Dems would be in better mid term position.
Speculation about the outcome of untried strategies is an enduring political ritual following every election, and, in the long run, Obama’s health care reform strategy may prove to have been the wisest course. In the end, however, “what if” scenarios don’t help much in terms of formulating strategy going forward. Regardless of all pre-election speculation, it’s more important that Dems learn the lessons of the midterms as revealed by the exit polls on Tuesday — and get focused on honing the best strategy for 2012.

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