What is this election about? So far it is all about power: who has it and who wants it, not necessarily what can or actually will be done with it.
Talk to any politician, administration official or strategist and they agree about the political climate right now. Obviously it’s bad for Democrats, given President Obama’s tepid approval ratings, the normal vagaries of midterm elections in the sixth year of a presidency and many competitive races in red states. That puts Obama’s party in danger of losing control of the Senate and colors everything the two parties are doing.
But underlying all that is another condition that is equally fundamental to understanding this election year. Americans remain gloomy about the country and express a sourness toward Washington and their elected representatives. Everyone working in politics claims to know that, but the campaigns that individual candidates are running seem designed mostly to make that problem worse.
The biggest issue is still the state of the economy — the level of unemployment and underemployment, wage stagnation, middle-class anxiety and the gap between the very wealthiest and most everyone else. Yet both sides sound tired as they attempt to offer answers to problems that have defied conventional approaches. The early months of this debate have been an exercise in tactical, poll-driven politics designed more to motivate constituencies than to address problems.
Republicans criticize the president for the continued sluggishness in the economy. A few GOP elected officials have begun to talk about conservative economic ideas that go beyond tax cuts for the wealthy. But as a party, Republicans have yet to offer voters a fresh or compelling sense of what they want to do. Attacking Obama is always the easier choice.
Obama and the Democrats offer support for a higher minimum wage and pay equity, which party leaders believe will energize female voters. The two ideas are meant to put Democrats on the side of middle-class and female voters, to draw a distinction with the Republicans, as Obama did with Mitt Romney in 2012.
On these issues, Democrats are mostly united. On other issues, there are divisions between the president (and his progressive national coalition) and Democratic candidates running in competitive races in red states.
The Affordable Care Act is supposedly a flashpoint in this election. The president has urged Democratic candidates to embrace the health-care law robustly. Some have, but not all. Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Kentucky, and Michelle Nunn, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Georgia, were asked in separate interviews last week whether they would have voted for the law. Both dodged the question.
Democrats believe their message of “keep and fix” the law is superior to the “repeal and replace” mantra of the GOP. And yet, Democratic candidates aren’t willing to say exactly what they would fix in the law and few Republicans have come forward with a consensus plan to replace it. The debate is being carried out with boilerplate language and lacks anything resembling an authentic effort to address the law’s problems and offer solutions.
Democrats recognize the political liabilities over health care. But Republican strategists say there are risks to their candidates absent an alternative and are urging a shift. “What is a center-right solution to health care?” asked GOP pollster David Winston. “You need to be able to offer that.”
What are Republicans planning to talk about in this election? The scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs deserves attention and will get it — substantively and politically. It is one more problem for the White House, and the administration likely will pay a price for what has happened. But there are chronic problems at the VA whose solutions will demand bipartisan action. This is more than just an issue to be turned into campaign fodder.
Benghazi may motivate the Republican base and help the party raise more money. It will capture headlines, presumably by this fall and into next year. But it’s not a governing platform. Attacking the president motivates the base but doesn’t address what many Republicans see as the party’s general inability to propose a fresh and positive agenda.
In an editorial in the new issue of the Weekly Standard, William Kristol warns Republicans against complacency. He does not assume that this will be the kind of wave election that took place in 2006 and 2010. He fears that GOP momentum has stalled and that without a more robust, reform agenda, expected gains could fall short of expectations.
“The basic fact of 2014 is that GOP candidates are going to have to earn their victories,” he writes. “They can’t simply dog-paddle in place, or sit on their surfboards, waiting for the wave to sweep them to triumph. They’ll have to make the case for themselves and against their opponents, and will have to explain what policies they’ll advance in Congress that would improve the status quo.”
Democrats know they have a structural obstacle in this election: Their voters are less likely to turn out in November than are Republicans. Obama is doing what he can to stoke enthusiasm, and his disdain for the opposition party and frustration with the media’s portrayal of the causes of gridlock are increasingly evident.
At a fundraiser in Chicago on Thursday night, Obama lambasted an “ideologically rigid” faction of the Republican Party as the engineers of obstruction. “There’s a tendency to say, a plague on both your houses,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is that the problem in Congress is very specific.”
He continued: “When you hear a false equivalence that somehow, well, Congress is just broken, it’s not true. What’s broken right now is a Republican Party that repeatedly says no to proven, time-tested strategies to grow the economy, create more jobs, ensure fairness, open up opportunity to all people.”
That kind of language cheers Democrats, who want to see more fight in the president. Just as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid’s (D-Nev.) attacks on the Koch brothers stir the base, Obama’s attacks are meant to do the same.
There is truth to the president’s claim that a faction of the Republican Party has forced House GOP leaders to resist compromise and that the party’s confrontational hard-liners have changed the rules on Capitol Hill.
But there are Republicans on Capitol Hill who are not ideological hard-liners and who lament what they regard as a president and White House senior staff who have grown increasingly withdrawn. They hear what Obama said Thursday and are offended. They think he does not try to understand the reasons they differ with his policies, believing he simply prefers to portray them all as heartless and captured by the tea party.
Obama no doubt thinks that the only way to make the last years of his presidency productive is to hold the Senate against the odds and, through the shock value of that outcome, force a change of behavior among the Republicans.
Republicans no doubt believe that if they take back the Senate and thus control both chambers of Congress next year, the president will have no choice but to begin to deal with them differently.
That is at the heart of the power struggle that will play out between now and November.