In the five years since the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has held at least a dozen press briefings to announce that the Democrats' return to power is imminent.
They did it again last week, with Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri and DCCC Chairman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island telling reporters that the next election looks great for their team.
One of these times they will be right, and 2000 might just be their year.
In 1996 the Democrats counted on President Clinton's coattails to reverse the defeat they had suffered in 1994, when they lost control of the House for the first time in 40 years. It turned out he could not muster a majority of the popular vote against two politically weak opponents, Robert J. Dole and Ross Perot, and Democrats regained only eight of the 54 seats they had lost in 1994.
In 1998 the Democrats believed that a backlash against the Republican effort to impeach and remove Clinton would carry them over the top. They gained five seats, but came up short.
Now, with Clinton headed for retirement and the identity of the Democratic presidential nominee unknown, Gephardt & Co. are relying on their own skills and strengths to produce the five additional seats that would make Gephardt speaker in 2001.
Those assets are substantial. As Gephardt bragged, "Democrats have controlled the issues agenda" this past year, even though Republicans run the House. Gephardt ticked off a list of issues--campaign finance reform, a minimum-wage boost, teacher hiring and smaller classrooms, managed-care reform, Medicare prescription drug benefits--which Democrats, aided by Clinton, have been promoting.
Polls taken by The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Pew Research Center this month showed broad public support for all these measures. The sampled voters say they trust the Democrats more than the Republicans to achieve them.
After the effort to remove Clinton fizzled, congressional Republicans spent the next six months promoting a giant tax cut--almost $800 billion over 10 years. They never made the sale, because most of the public thought, correctly, that if those funds proved to be available, it would be smarter to use them to pay down the national debt. When Clinton vetoed the Republican tax bill, there was barely a murmur of protest from the voters.
More recently, the Republicans have tried to pose as protectors of Social Security, claiming on the basis of questionable budget math that they would not spend any of the Social Security surplus, while Democrats would squander it on dubious programs. But the Times-CBS News survey found that Democrats still have a 16-point edge as the party voters trust to make the right decisions on Social Security.
In The Post's recent massive study of public concerns, the voters' agenda for 2000 reads like a Democratic dream list. The five biggest worries are that insurance companies will deny managed-care patients the treatments they need, that schools are not safe, that elderly Americans can't afford prescription drugs, that work pressures are keeping parents from spending enough time with their children and that medical benefits from employers will be reduced or eliminated.
Given that agenda, it is no surprise that each of the three most recent surveys showed the Democrats leading the Republicans by six or seven points in the national vote for the House of Representatives.
District-by-district analyses also look favorable for the Democrats. Most striking is the fact that Republicans will have to defend 19 open seats, where their incumbents are either retiring or running for other offices, while the Democrats have only five such seats. Those districts are the likeliest to switch.
Much can change in a year, of course. But when I called the National Republican Congressional Committee to ask for comment on the Democrats' claim that control of the House may well turn over next year, the response was not overwhelming. "We have outraised them by $10 million," a spokeswoman said. There may be more Democratic retirements, she ventured. But the biggest factor, she said, is that "they are suffering at the top of the ticket. We have two presidential candidates [George W. Bush and John McCain] who are leading both of their possible candidates. In a presidential year, people turn out to vote for president. If they lose the White House by 10 points, it's impossible to see them winning back the House."
In an era of ticket-splitting, when coattails don't amount to much, the Republicans better come up with a better strategy than that.