Five surprise developments in 2009 point to a great reversal this fall.
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The second pleasant surprise was that Republican leadership and the rank and file of elected officials refused the advice of establishment pundits to move left in the wake of the Obama 52 percent victory. Such advice was proffered by the same sources after Goldwater’s defeat in 1964, after Watergate in 1974, after the Republicans lost the Senate in 1986, and in 1992 with the Clinton victory. Following November 2008, the establishment media predictably urged Republicans to give up, be “bipartisan” and “move to the center” (i.e., cease all opposition to the new ruling elite). These traditional voices were joined by “new” and “intriguing” and “cutting-edge” and “forward-looking” “upcoming leaders” and “brilliant” “conservative” voices — given a microphone by said establishment press to promote the road taken by Quisling and Petain.
The third surprise was the ability of the Republicans in Congress to highlight the difference between the Democrats and themselves by keeping their party united in opposition. Despite the on-slaught of establishment press declaring all opposition to be hopeless, Republicans in the House were unanimous in opposing the stimulus package and the 2010 budget, and lost only eight votes on cap and trade. And on the “health care bill,” Republicans lost only one befuddled congressman, Louisiana’s Joseph Cao, who thought he was casting a pro-life vote after the passage of the Stupak amendment.
This unity contrasts with the 26 Democratic House members who voted for Gramm-Latta, Reagan’s first-year program of budget restraint. And on the Reagan administration’s “must win” legislation, 48 House and 37 Senate Democrats voted for the 198l Reagan tax cut. More recently, in 2001 Bush won 58 Democratic votes in the House for the abolition of the death tax and 187 votes for expanding IRAs and 401(k) accounts. Conversely, it was a sign of Democratic serious-ness and commitment to winning the 2006 elections when the traditional Democratic vote for free trade bills fell from more than 100 to only 15 on CAFTA for the express purpose of forcing Republicans in trade-sensitive districts to cast difficult votes.
The Senate is always the body more likely to have “mavericks” who can win a coveted spot on Good Morning America or even the cover of Time if they break with the party and endorse the Democrats’ newest idea. Yet Republicans were unanimous in opposing Reid’s 2,000-page health care bill. The Democrats could not even bring the cap and trade bills to the floor. Republican senators voted unanimously against the Obama FY 2010 budget and lost only three votes on the early test of the stimulus package (Specter, Snowe, and Collins).
One reason there was no grand compromise on health care was that the senators most susceptible to the temptation to “be in the room” and “be a player” were all up for reelection in 2010 and made their decision to go into full-blown opposition in August when they returned to their states and found that their town hall meetings were engorged with citizens furious at the idea of anything short of total opposition. McCain, Grassley, Enzi, Bennett (and derivatively Hatch) are all up for election in 2010 and, despite histories of liking to be in the room making legislation, were convinced by the August revolt that this would be unwise. Here the Tea Party movement had a measurable and critical role in the victories of 2009 — greater than all the lobbying by businesses on K Street.
The fourth unplanned advantage conservatives had in 2009 was the discovery that Obama and the Chicago White House truly believed their own rhetoric. They believed (and still do) that taking a dollar out of the economy in taxes or debt and moving it somewhere else — the stimulus spending — will in fact create jobs and opportunity. Since passage of the stimulus bill promising to “save or create” 4 million jobs, the nation has lost 2.7 million jobs in the private sector and added 100,000 government jobs.
The left also believed its own assertions that the conservative movement was a shill for big businesses. It believed that if it neutralized the energy industry there would be no opposition to cap and trade. It neutered the electric power industry and yet the public shifted against cap and trade anyway. It neutered the pharmaceutical lobby, the health insurance lobby, and the National Federation of Independent Business. And yet the countryside still arose in opposition to the point that a Gallup poll released in mid-January 2010 showed Americans had come to disapprove of Obama’s handling of health care by 58-37 percent.
The fifth game changer in 2009 was the collective decision by conservative activists and Republican elected officials to avoid the mistake we made in personalizing our objections to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Conservatives focused on Clinton rather than the bad policies of the congressional Democrats. Republicans ran tens of millions of dollars attacking Clinton in 1998 and voters didn’t connect Clinton’s personal problems with why they should defeat Democratic congressmen and senators. In 1998, Democrats gained five House seats when Republicans understandably believed they could and would win 20. Clinton’s peccadilloes were such that describing them made even his most dispassionate critics sound “pornographic.”
This time around, conservatives focused on criticizing Obama’s spending and big-government approach to energy and health rather than on attacking him personally. Even better, criticism was correctly focused on Harry Reid of Nevada and Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. The stimulus package was written by the Democratic Congress with little or no input from Obama. The 2010 budget was written by the Democratic Congress. The cap and trade and various health care reform bills were written by Congress. Obama gave speeches. The House and Senate Democrats have been writing and sometimes passing legislation. If the Democrats’ agenda were a martini, Obama would be the vermouth — only vaguely present.
The decision to avoid attacking Obama personally was made independently by tens of thousands of Americans. The signs at the Tea Party rallies focused on policies and Congress. There was much wisdom here. Why attack the first African American president, whose allies are begging for the opportunity to describe all opposition to trillion-dollar deficits as racially motivated? Why attack the president who for reasons distinct from his party and policies was at the beginning polling at 70 percent? And why attack the White House when the next target is Congress in 2010, when Obama will not be on the ballot?
AS WE ENTER 2010 there are now 256 Democrats and 178 Republicans in the House and 59 Democrats and 41 Republicans in the Senate. Republicans need to win 41 House seats net to gain a majority of 218. They contest in a field where 49 House seats are held by Democrats today in districts that voted for McCain in the losing year of 2008. There are 83 House seats that were carried by Bush in 2004 when he squeaked by with 51 percent of the vote. In 1994, Republicans gained 52 seats to win a 230-204 majority. That year 25 Democrats had retired from contested seats. As of this writing there are 12 Democrats leaving contested seats.
In early January, the generic ballot on which Americans are asked if they plan to vote Republican or Democratic for Congress showed a preference among likely voters for Republicans of 45 to 37 percent — a 15-point swing from Inauguration Day 2009. In 1994, the Republicans never held a generic preference lead until the day they won the election.
In the Senate, where 36 of the 100 seats are in play, Republicans and Democrats must each defend 18 seats. Republicans need to gain 10 seats to win a majority, as a 50/50 split would let Vice President Joe Biden be the deciding vote. A win of five seats would ensure that (even with episodic defections from Maine or Arizona) Leader Mitch McConnell could cobble together 41 votes to stop any particular piece of legislation with the filibuster.
One year ago it looked as if the Democrats would gain three seats in the Senate. Today, Delaware has moved from solid D to likely R with the decision of moderate conservative Mike Castle to run and Beau Biden, the vice president’s son, preferring to stay on as attorney general. North Dakota was viewed as safe territory to reelect Byron Dorgan but, facing overwhelming polling numbers, Dorgan has exited the field and popular moderate conservative Gov. John Hoeven has announced he will run. Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln has desperately played the game of pretending to be a moderate or even conservative Democrat, but everyone has learned that Harry Reid owns her vote on everything from spending to taxes, unions, and health care. She polls behind every serious Republican in a crowded primary field. Illinois Democrats had every reason to believe they owned the seat vacated by onetime state senator Barack Obama, but their strongest candidates bowed out and Republicans are likely to nominate Congressman Mark Kirk, whose sole indiscretion as an economic conservative was the barely forgivable vote for cap and trade — a vote he has forcefully and repeatedly repudiated. Kirk is now expected to win the general. In Pennsylvania, now-Democrat Specter is polling behind the man he beat in the Republican primary of 2004, former congressman Pat Toomey, onetime chair of the Club for Growth. Nevada’s Reid is looking more and more like Tom Daschle and polls behind by double digits against either of his likely Republican challengers, Danny Tarkanian and Sue Lowden. Colorado’s appointed senator Michael Bennett is polling behind longtime conservative statewide official Jane Norton. Indiana’s Evan Bayh expected his $13 million coffer and undeserved reputation as a moderate to keep him safe, but he polls neck-and-neck with lesser known potential Republican challengers.
In New York and California vulnerable Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Barbara Boxer could lose in 2010, depending on who runs against them. And the three Republican seats once viewed as vulnerable — New Hampshire, Ohio, and Missouri — have strong Republicans running well who are viewed now as likely winners.
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