Midterm madness: Spokesman confirms obvious

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; 2:35 PM

The Democrats are in trouble this year. You know it, I know it, your Uncle Al knows it, your local bartender knows it. This is not the kind of state secret you need to hire a Russian spy to uncover.

So why was it big news in the political world when Robert Gibbs acknowledged it?

One theory: We've become so accustomed to political players insisting everything's fine when it's clearly not, to candidates proclaiming they can win when they're down 40 points, that a glimmer of candor is . . . somehow unsettling.

So when the White House spokesman declared on "Meet the Press" that "there is no doubt there are enough seats at play that could cause Republicans to gain control" of the House, you could hear pundits across America smacking their foreheads.

What was he thinking? Why did he do this? What does it all mean?

If that seems strange to you, remember that some in this gang are feverishly trying to handicap the 2012 presidential election before we've even gotten through the midterms.

The latest WP/ABC poll contains more bad news for the president's party, with Obama down to 43 percent approval and seven in 10 registered voters saying they have no confidence in either Democratic or Republican lawmakers. Although that might seem a bipartisan rejection, the reality is that more Dems will wind up being punished -- both because their party can be blamed for the mess in Washington and because plenty of marginal members were swept in during the 2006 and 2008 campaigns.

If unemployment were 7 percent instead of 9.5, those numbers would look very different. (In this CBS poll, 52 percent say Obama "has spent too little time dealing with the economy.") But that's life when you're president. The oil spill isn't helping, either.

Thirty-nine House seats is an awful lot to win. Even in a favorable political environment, the Republicans may well fall short.

So was the acknowledgment a calculated strategy on Gibbs's part? One reason I don't think so: David Axelrod was on three other Sunday shows -- in fact, I ran into him at CNN and we talked about LeBron -- and he made no such comments. If there had been a concerted White House effort to peddle this message, both officials would have been reading from the same script.

Not that this has stopped everyone from reading the tea leaves. In Slate, John Dickerson examines the angles:

"Did Gibbs let slip one of those truths that everyone in Washington knows but that as the president's spokesman is not supposed to admit? No. He merely articulated the White House political strategy. . . .

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