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Guide to Democratic blame game if party loses lots of seats in Congress

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 8:43 AM

If the Democrats lose control of the House, the days after Election Day won't feature fond farewells to defeated members and a pledge to cooperate with the newly empowered Republican Party.

Instead, some Democrats will be angry, and not just with the GOP. Democrats are already starting to attack one another for the expected losses. On the op-ed page of the New York Times more than a week before the election, liberal writer Ari Berman wrote a piece titled "Boot the Blue Dogs," in which he criticized conservative Democrats for trimming the party's sails on key issues, leading to public frustration that could cost the party in Tuesday's elections.

In response, the group Third Way, which calls for Democrats to move to the center, said Berman's argument was "loony."

"It is moderates who are the kingmakers of America politics," Matthew Bennett of Third Way wrote in a memo to reporters. "They were with Democrats in 2008, and now (apparently) they aren't. To win them back, Democrats must become the party of private sector growth, take on deficits and entitlements, embrace and lead on fiscal responsibility, and end their reliance on DC-based interest groups. They must reach for the center, not veer farther to the left."

There will be plenty more of this after the election. A guide to the coming Blame Game:

Who'll be blamed: The Republicans.

Who'll be doing the blaming: Liberal Democrats in Congress and the White House.

What they'll be blamed for: Some Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have been attacking Republican outside groups for weeks, arguing that they are effectively buying the election with an avalanche of money from outside groups.

"Everything was going great, and all of a sudden secret money from God knows where - because they won't disclose it - is pouring in," Pelosi said at a recent party fundraiser.

Some liberals argue voters are punishing them for a bad economy that was caused by GOP policies. If Republicans hadn't blocked a larger stimulus program, they say, things would have turned around quicker.

The other side of the story: To get the stimulus passed, the Democrats shrank it. The Republicans have blocked nearly all the bills the Democrats have pushed to improve the economy.

That said, Pelosi's notion that conservative groups such as American Crossroads are somehow stealing the election is simplistic. The GOP has had momentum for more than a year, longer than some of the new conservative groups have even been in existence. And Democrats benefited from huge cash infusions from labor and other liberal-leaning interests.

And blaming the Republicans entirely excludes what turned off many independent voters: the health-care bill and the process by which it was passed.

But expect some Democrats to offer this explanation repeatedly over the next week: It conveniently absolves them from all problems.

Who'll be blamed: The Democrats, particularly in Congress, moved too far to the left.

Who'll be doing the blaming: Conservative Blue Dogs Democrats, more centrist party strategists such as Third Way and pollster Douglas Schoen.

What they'll be blamed for: Essentially, Democrats moved too far, too fast. Instead of focusing on the economy, the party tried to reform health care, which alienated independents and galvanized the GOP. Democrats pushed controversial bills on immigration and restricting greenhouse gas emissions.

"Voters are hardly enthralled with the GOP, but the Democrats are pursuing policies that are out of step with the way ordinary Americans think and feel about politics and government," Schoen and Patrick Caddell, a one-time pollster for President Jimmy Carter, wrote in March. "Barring some change of approach, they will be punished severely at the polls."

The other side of the story: The health-care bill was certainly a drag on some Democrats in conservative districts and states. But as opponents of this theory will argue, Democrats didn't get elected to win more elections but to govern. The health-care bill accomplished a major goal Democrats have been talking about for decades and took the opportunity to push it through when they had large majorities in Congress.

And as Democrats, including President Obama have argued, GOP opposition might have been a given no matter what the Democrats did: The health-care bill contained many ideas first proposed by Republicans, and the stimulus was full of tax cuts. No matter; nearly every Republican in Congress voted against both.

Who'll be blamed: The party was too cautious.

Who'll be doing the blaming: Liberal activists, a few liberals in Congress, MSNBC talking heads, "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart.

What they'll be blamed for: The Democrats would be in a better position if they had taken more populist stands, pushing for the "public option" in health care, requiring the breakup of big banks in the financial regulation bill, never trying to negotiate with the Republicans on any legislation.

"It feels like some of the reforms that have passed, like health care, have been done in a very political manner that has papered over a foundation that is corrupt," Stewart said in his interview with Obama last week.

The other side of the story: The Democrats accomplished more in the past two years than any Congress in recent memory. The financial regulatory bill, the stimulus and the health-care legislation were full of notable changes, many of them long championed by liberals.

It's also not clear that Democrats who watch Stewart or Rachel Maddow are really the problem for Democrats.

The enthusiasm gap between the two parties that shows up in polls does not occur because Democrats are disengaged, but rather because Republicans, angry with the way Democrats are running Washington, are more likely to vote.

And if minority voters and people younger than 30 don't turn out as they did in the 2008, it's probably not because of Obama or the Democrats in Congress: The midterm electorate is typically older and less diverse than voters in presidential elections.

Who'll be blamed: Obama and the White House.

Who'll be doing the blaming: Some Democrats in Congress, regular Obama critics such as Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D-Pa.)

What they'll be blamed for : The team that ran an impressive 2008 campaign forgot how to communicate when it started governing. Some Democrats say the party needed a Bill Clinton-style, feel-your-pain president to connect with voters in recession. Instead, Obama never connected with the electorate.

"B-plus, A-minus on substantive accomplishments," said Rendell in a recent New York Times Magazine article on Obama's two years, "and a D-plus or C-minus on communication."

"They lost the communications battle on both major initiatives, and they lost it early," said Rendell of the health-care bill and the stimulus. "We didn't use the president in either stimulus or health care until we had lost the spin battle."

The other side of the story : Obama traveled extensively during the campaign, attending rallies and holding backyard events to reach out to voters. His missteps in communicating can only partly explain why a large portion of the electorate hasn't warmed to Democratic policies.

What's to blame: The midterm election year.

Who'll be doing the blaming: Democratic consultants, academics.

What it'll blamed for: Many political analysts say Democrats won a lot of seats in conservative districts and states in 2006 and 2008 and were bound to lose many of these after Democrats no longer had a Republican president to run against. In addition, recessions often hurt the party in power, and the Democrats can't win every election.

The other side of the story : All of these things are true. But it's hard to arue on television that you lost because of political science, so don't expect to hear that from too many Democrats. And if the Democrats lose 70 or 80 seats, it might be hard to chalk that all up to the political environment.

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