Democrats have reason to be glum. President Obama just hit a new low (41 percent) in another prominent poll (Wall Street Journal/NBC). They just lost a special election in Florida they probably should have won, and which the media is playing up as a bellwether, thereby depressing morale and fundraising. The GOP tea party types are not likely to take down electable Republican incumbent senators while Democratic senators in red states struggle.
Democrats talk about a “tough environment” or the “wind in their faces,” as if a weather phenomenon beyond their control has stuck. In fact, it’s their own policies and the president’s performance that are pulling them down.
The Obamacare sign-ups, especially for critical younger voters, are disappointing. As conservative economist Doug Holtz-Eakin tells me, “The most important is that the exchange pools will be older, sicker and more expensive. So insurance companies will lose money on them and the so-called risk corridors (“insurance bailout”) will be used to compensate them (in part). The politics of this will be nasty.” Moreover, carriers are likely to increase premiums for next year and/or drop out of the exchanges entirely. The death spiral is beginning.
And then there is the Democrats’ anointed 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. She’s struggling to define a position on Russia and has only reminded us that she was at the center of Russia reset. A former aide is caught in yet another fundraising scandal. The sleazy, money-grubbing side of the Clintons is never far from view.
Republicans – unusually – are not self-destructing, yet. Nor are they idle, as some pundits suggest they should be. (Just rag on Obamacare until November!) The Senate under Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) accomplishes nothing, but in this week alone the House passed a resolution (with sanctions on the way) on Ukraine, a pediatric-research funding bill and a bill to exempt volunteer first responders from Obamacare, and provided an incentive to hire vets by not counting their hires toward the 50-person trigger for Obamacare. None of these is gigantic, but GOP incumbents can point to actual items they support, most of which will be popular back home. They can also point to the Senate, where every good idea seems to die. In the macro sense, these items aren’t going to change the party’s “brand,” but in the micro sense they are helpful election-year items.
Now before Republicans get carried away, they need to recall that things looked pretty promising for Senate takeovers in 2010 and again in 2012. On Obamacare, they should keep in mind that sign-ups for Obamacare are not yet completed; even conservative critics of Obamacare concede that it is possible a lot people are waiting to make up their minds closer to the deadline. Republicans should also be concerned that a poor primary winner or two changes the image of Senate races. Overreaching on investigations and/or other stunts akin to the shutdown might poison the well. And passivity – in fundraising, ground game and/or policy positioning – may allow the Democrats to get back in the game. In other words, there is plenty of time for Republicans to mess up.
On the policy front, Republicans can continue to take votes to suspend and/or delay parts of the Obamacare. They can take a populist stand to block the “risk corridors,” making Democrats take rotten votes. But they should also get behind a unified Obamacare alternative in the House and a pro-growth, anti-Russia energy independence plan. Those two issues garner wide support and are good policy to boot.
In sum, Democrats may be down but they are not out. Republicans who start measuring the drapes in the Senate majority leader’s office are playing with fire. And allowing far-right groups to knock the party off a solid center-right policy path is asking for a repeat of the 2010 and 2012 disappointments.