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What Election Day will bring

Delaware Senate candidates Chris Coons (D) and Christine O'Donnell (R) face off in an Oct. 13 debate.
Delaware Senate candidates Chris Coons (D) and Christine O'Donnell (R) face off in an Oct. 13 debate. (Jacquelyn Martin/associated Press)
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By Michael Gerson
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

At some point in an election cycle, out of exhaustion and desperation, commentators turn to experts. So I recently posed several questions to Charlie Cook of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

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Question: Is this a wave election? Yes, but the wave seems to have crested. "This is approximately where the 1994 election was -- something in the range of eight Senate seats, 52 House seats," says Cook. "A month ago, there was a chance it could have gone from gigantic to titanic. But the possibility of Republican House gains in the 60s or 70s has declined in the last month."

The elements of a large GOP victory remain in place. Republican voters are likely to turn out disproportionately. Independents have swung toward the GOP. But through trial and error, Democrats eventually hit on a more effective public message. "They tried bashing Bush for months, which did not work," Cook explains. "They gave up defending their record. Now they are going after the personal and career shortcomings of their opponents, some of whom are not very well vetted."

In particular, Cook argues, "Christine O'Donnell gave Democratic voters a bit of a jolt." The effects of her unique charisma can be found outside Delaware. "Pennsylvania has gotten closer," says Cook. Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey "hasn't done anything stupid. There is spillover from attention to Delaware."

Tea Party enthusiasm adds to Republican momentum, but clearly some Tea Party candidates are rallying Democratic resistance.

Question: Are angry midterm voters reacting to economic conditions or against President Obama's policy agenda?

The two are related. Because of the economy, "any one-party government right now would be paying a horrific price," explains Cook. But irrelevant ambitions complicated Obama's political task. "Every month, every week, every day that Washington seemed focused on health care instead of the economy frightened people. It seemed out of touch." Cook says the decisive political moment came in the summer of 2009, as unemployment remained well above 9 percent "when it wasn't supposed to get to 8.2 percent. . . . I have never seen an economic stimulus completely discredited before. But it was.

"In a difficult economic climate," Cook added, the president and Democratic leaders "seemed to check the box on the economy, so they could quickly move on to climate change and health care. Like they were going through the motions."

Environmental and health reforms that might have been more popular in other times were derided as distractions. And these measures were perceived as attacks on business during an economic downturn. "If you gave Democratic leaders truth serum and asked, 'Do you hate business?' they would say 'no' and pass the test. But it would be hard to convince a lot of businesspeople. Democrats were tone-deaf to how their actions would be perceived."

Question: What lessons should Obama's aides take away from these likely political reverses?

"It was the political aides," counters Cook, "who lost the arguments. Rahm [Emanuel] knew they should cut a deal on health care, get to the economy." But Obama held a different view of himself and his presidency. "He had already been first at everything. He wanted to be something other than the first -- to be historical, game-changing, to have grand influence like FDR or LBJ. But he missed out on the day job," which was jobs and economic growth.

Some, Cook says, "are told all their lives that they are the most brilliant people on the planet. They don't get less bright, but hubris kicks in. [Obama] just assumed that he was going to be a success, as he had always been in life."

According to Cook, this reflects a lack of experience. "Experience is not an end, it is a means to an end: judgment." Cook said that a few years in the Senate "don't give an understanding of institutions and their dynamics. If [Obama] had been in the Senate six or eight years, he might have accumulated the wisdom to match the intelligence."

Question: What should we look for on election night to judge the height of the wave? Control of the Senate will be the main, early source of drama. "If the Democrats hold Connecticut and hold West Virginia, that means the rest of the evening Republicans have to run the table, including Washington and California. Winning both of those is an enormous challenge."

The outcome in the House, Cook believes, will be decided by around 11:30 Eastern time. If his predictions are borne out, Obama's world will change utterly by the stroke of midnight.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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