Are Democrats painting themselves as the lesser of the evils?

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; A02

It would not be accurate to say that Democrats are worried about losing control of the House in November. It would be accurate to say that Democrats are in a screaming panic about losing control of the House in November.

The panic threshold was crossed Sunday morning on "Meet the Press," when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "There's no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control."

Gibbs spent part of the next two days claiming that he was merely pointing out the obvious. But when the president's chief spokesman points out the "obvious" fact that his party is in big trouble, it becomes self-fulfilling. On Monday, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) gleefully agreed that "we're going to retake the House, as Mr. Gibbs suggested."

On Tuesday, as Democratic lawmakers limped back into town from a 10-day recess, a grim Steny Hoyer (Md.), the House majority leader, sat at the end of a long conference table in his office and was quizzed by reporters about the Gibbs-induced panic.

"Do I think he is right in there are enough seats in play?" he asked himself. "Probably close," he answered.

Hoyer agrees with Gibbs that the party could lose the House. It was enough to cause Democrats to assume the Edvard Munch position.

The majority leader hastened to insist that "I don't think we are going to lose the House" -- a clarification Gibbs himself belatedly added -- but everything about Hoyer's defensive and somber 30 minutes with reporters hinted otherwise.

He thought it "unfortunate" that voters have not come to appreciate all the good things in the Democrats' economic stimulus legislation. He said the Democrats "regrettably" could not pass a budget with a target for deficit reduction. And he said the Democrats have a "very difficult" political argument to present to voters before November's elections.

"I am sure you are going to ask me about the recent poll in The Washington Post; I am not happy about it," Hoyer submitted, preemptively, in his opening statement before taking questions.

Unfortunate, regrettable, very difficult and unhappy: These are not the words of a party leader who anticipates victory.

"I think Americans are angry," he went on. "Their economy is still not working the way it ought to work. We agree with that." Hoyer tried to explain how the anger has "unfortunately" -- that word again! -- been misdirected at innocent Democrats rather than at "the Bush/Hastert/Boehner/McCain policies."

The Post-ABC News poll that caused Hoyer's unhappiness found that six in 10 voters lack confidence in President Obama to make the right decisions, and -- of more immediate concern to House Democrats -- a majority of voters say it's more important to have Republicans in charge of Congress as a check on Obama's policies.

Hoyer, perhaps inadvertently, illustrated why things are so bleak for the Democrats: They have little tangible evidence that their policies have worked. The best they can do is claim that things were worse under the Republicans, or that things would have been worse without the Democrats' policies.

"My view is that it is very difficult -- I understand that as a political argument, to say things would have been worse," Hoyer allowed. "You know a guy who doesn't have a job or a gal who doesn't have a job and hasn't had a job for six months or a year or 18 months says to themselves, 'Mack, I don't think things could be worse.' But, in fact, most economists agree that they would have been substantially worse. So we have to make that argument."

Proposed bumper sticker: "Vote Democratic. Things might have been even worse without us."

Hoyer's other campaign theme was only slightly better: asking Americans "to focus on whether they want to go back to the failed policies of Bush and the Republican Congress. . . . Employment was the worst performance since Herbert Hoover, and unemployment was staggering, having lost 3.8 million jobs the last year that that economic policy was in place."

Proposed bumper sticker: "Vote Democratic. Because Republicans are even worse than we are."

Hoyer is, by all accounts, a very nice man. But at a time when Democrats desperately need a strong campaign theme, the message he delivered Tuesday for House Democrats returning from recess was oddly off-key. He devoted the bulk of his lengthy opening statement to a discussion of the accounting method known as "paygo."

He could be heard uttering "the Appropriations Committee then allocates that number, which is called a 302(a) allocation, to a 302(b) allocation, which is a subset to each one of the 12 subcommittees." He could also be heard providing the wisdom that "the budget enforcement resolution" made "the House statutory paygo rule compatible with the statutory paygo rule."

Proposed bumper sticker: "Vote Democratic. We made the House statutory paygo rule compatible with the statutory paygo rule."

No wonder Gibbs is scared.

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