How the midterm campaign will play out

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Sunday, September 5, 2010

With the Republicans leading the Democrats on the generic congressional ballot, what will the two parties in Congress do before November? Below, responses from Dan Schnur, Scott Keeter, Jennifer Palmieri, Matthew Dowd, Martin Frost and Christine Todd Whitman.

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that we are all entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. He did not address whether we are each entitled to our own view of history. On that answer rests the outcome of the November elections.

The basic underpinnings of the economy will not change over the next eight weeks, nor will voters' feelings about their own economic prospects. Public opinion on Afghanistan and Iraq, health care, immigration, and climate change have all hardened as well. The outcome now rests solely on which party's explanation of recent American history voters find more credible and, more specifically, who they believe has occupied the White House in the years since Bill Clinton left office.

The Democratic alternative suggests that Barack Obama became president approximately 45 minutes ago. Since then, he has repaired U.S. relationships with the rest of the world and reformed Wall Street. But he will require more time to fix George Bush's economy.

The Republican version says that Bush was never president, except for a few days in 2001 to cut taxes and rally the country after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He then disappeared for six years and returned briefly to authorize the troop surge in Iraq.

This historical tug of war is grounded in the broader finger-pointing exercise of determining who is to blame for the state of the economy. If the Democrats are to reverse the trend lines, they will have to find a way to convince unhappy voters that the party in power should not bear the brunt of their anger.

SCOTT KEETER

Director of survey research at the Pew Research Center

Neither party has much incentive to reach across the aisle this fall.

For Democrats, motivating their base is critical, but they're unlikely to achieve that through bipartisanship. And their sizable legislative accomplishments -- which they hoped would appeal both to their base and to independents -- have not gotten a very positive public reaction, given the continuing economic troubles. In fact, a July Pew Research poll found far more people thinking the government's policies have benefited the wealthy and large corporations than the middle class. Passing more legislation this fall is not apt to change public perceptions about the Democrats' record, at least before Election Day.

For their part, Republicans have little incentive to cooperate with Democrats, given how negative public opinion is about the Democratic Congress. But the GOP is poorly regarded as well -- in part because of its successful efforts to block major parts of the Democratic legislative agenda. Unlike in 1994, the public now dislikes the GOP as much or more than it does the Democrats. Polls notwithstanding, that makes the outcome in November less certain than it might otherwise be.

One thing many members of both parties agree on is the value of sending money home to their constituents, despite the fact that leaders of both parties have vowed to reduce or eliminate earmarks and pork-barrel spending. The public dislikes pork in theory but not in practice: 68 percent of Americans told CBS in March that "earmarks" or "pork" are "not acceptable." But an August Pew Research poll found 53 percent saying they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who has a record "of bringing government projects and money" to their district. So support for more of this kind of spending is potentially the only significant legislating we will see this fall.

JENNIFER PALMIERI

Senior vice president for communications at Center for American Progress; deputy press secretary in the Clinton White House

Republicans will be loath to do anything to upset the current political dynamic, and I suspect Rep. John Boehner's promised "Contract With America" will either never see the light of day or be completely devoid of substance. This is probably good for Republicans and bad for Democrats.

The Republicans' 1994 Contract With America was the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal fall for those of us who were then on the Clinton White House staff. Finally, we had a means of defining the midterms as a choice between two agendas as opposed to a referendum on President Bill Clinton. The contract came out too late for the '94 Democrats to turn around that election. But the spending cuts proposed in the contract proved to be congressional Republicans' undoing in their subsequent budget battles with the president and helped define the choice for voters between Clinton and Bob Dole in 1996.

If Republicans won't cooperate, congressional Democrats will have to define the choice on their own. They can highlight key issues. Many are focusing on Rep. Paul Ryan's economic plan, which supports privatization of Social Security. Democrats in the House could force a series of votes on the expiring Bush tax cuts that would show the Democrats as being on the side of the middle class and the Republicans on the side of corporations and the wealthiest. Arguing that Democrats want to go forward and Republicans want to go back is a good frame -- but candidates need some substance that demonstrates what the Republicans would actually do if they are going to turn that message-frame into a meaningful choice for voters.

MATTHEW DOWD

Political analyst for ABC News; columnist for National Journal; chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign

Voters' perceptions of Congress are toxic. In most polls, trust in the federal government, and Congress in particular, is at an all-time low. Thus Republican candidates have a significant advantage over most years even though the public doesn't have a particularly favorable perception of them, either. So over the next 60 days both parties will relentlessly attack each other in very negative ways, as they have been doing over the past month. There are no winners in this political conversation, and it is unlikely that any significant legislation will be passed before the election.

Republicans will take advantage of the negative environment by trying to pile on. Democrats will try to deflect these attacks by going negative on Republican candidates with messages such as "you might not like us, but you surely will like the alternative less." Republican attacks will probably be more effective because they reflect current attitudes, while Democrats will have to reach back to the past and try to cast President George W. Bush as responsible for the current situation. This won't work well since voters respond more to recent history rather than an older version of problems.

In the end, Democrats should hope and pray and work at improving President Obama's image, since his approval rating will be the factor with the greatest impact on the election. But Democrats are unlikely to do that, and voters will face a constant barrage of negative messaging from both sides.

MARTIN FROST

Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1995 to 1998; representative from Texas from 1979 to 2005

The press, which travels in a pack, has been overstating the Republican chances for taking control of the House. That doesn't mean the GOP can't win the House, but it is far from a foregone conclusion. Democrats must make it clear externally and internally that they are competitive. This means recasting their races, drawing sharp contrasts between themselves and their opponents. Republicans will try to make the election a referendum on the Democratic Party, so Democrats must make the campaign a contest between the two individuals on the ballot.

For example, Republicans will try to run away from the crazy pronouncements by some of their Tea Party nominees and party leaders about privatizing Social Security and Medicare; Democrats need to press their GOP opponents on these issues. Democrats also must pound their GOP opponents on the near-unanimous Republican congressional vote against providing funding for states and local governments to keep teachers, police officers and firefighters working this fall. Democrats can retain both the House and the Senate if they make it abundantly clear this election is about a choice between responsible mainstream Democrats and fringe Republican nominees who would take the country in a dangerous direction.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN

Chair of the Republican Leadership Council; governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001

Both parties in Congress will continue to hammer their base issues until Election Day.

Republicans will focus on President Obama and the ways his administration has failed to tackle the economic problems we faced in 2008, and still face, and they will critique the rampant spending that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Obama have overseen. As part of this fiscal message, Republicans will no doubt highlight President George W. Bush's middle-class tax cuts, which Obama might allow to expire. I suspect Republicans will also hammer immigration, a topic that preys on economic fears and highlights an issue on which Obama has not acted enough.

The Democrats will probably try to take the tax issue away from Republicans with a payroll-tax holiday, by reinstating the research and development tax credit or something similar. They will tout Obama's legislative achievements and kept promises, including health-care and financial industry reforms.

The continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- despite Obama's withdrawal plans -- are a double-edged sword for both parties. How these conflicts play politically this fall will depend on how much terrorist activity we see in the coming weeks.

Finally, both parties will be watching Tea Party voters, who have the momentum right now -- and how they will affect the November outcome is still unknown.


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