Be Afraid

Column: The Democratic plan to take back the House

August 16, 2013

On Election Night 2010, I watched the returns come in alongside a prominent liberal columnist. As he observed the Republicans capture the House of Representatives and gain in the Senate, in governor’s mansions, and in state houses across the country, my friend put the best spin on events that he could.

"Well," I remember him saying, "the Obama electorate just didn’t show up."

How right he was. The voters who went to the polls in 2010 were older and whiter than the voters in 2008. Whites made up 77 percent of the electorate in 2010. And the Republican share of that vote was 60 percent, translating into the best year for the GOP since 1948.

Fast-forward two years. The Romney campaign and many conservatives, including me, assumed the 2012 electorate would more closely resemble 2010 than 2008. We were wrong. In 2012, the white share of the electorate dropped to 72 percent. Romney won 59 percent of that vote: the highest share for a presidential candidate in decades, but not high enough to defeat President Obama. As my liberal colleague had predicted, the Obama electorate returned to save the president from the heartbreak of a single term.

Are conservatives repeating the mistake? They take it for granted that the electorate in 2014 will be the same as in 2010. Surely Obama voters will stay home during the midterms, they say. Surely Obama and Democrats in Congress will suffer from the same "six-year itch" that voters scratched in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.

They point out the favorable political conditions. Senate Democrats are defending more seats than Senate Republicans. The House? It’s a firewall, strengthened by gerrymandering, incumbency, and the concentration of Obama supporters in a few districts. The president’s approval rating is in the doldrums. And Republicans are performing fairly well on the generic ballot.

All true. But all subject to change: A major event could rally the public to the president, a Republican-engineered government shutdown could blow whatever good will with voters the party has left, a rash of scandals could break out over Republicans in Congress, disappointment in GOP leadership and message could lead to apathy, disillusion, and a decline in turnout.

Leaving the field open to the Obama team, assuming it is ready to play.

It is. The president’s attempts to recreate the conditions of the 2012 election have been blatant but not ineffective. His campaign was transformed into Organizing for Action in order to keep tabs on its precious voter list and data and keep core supporters active (even if those supporters don’t always show at events). His fundraising appeals mention his desire to restore Nancy Pelosi to speaker of the House. His major policy addresses—on drones and the war on terror, on global warming, on surveillance—are designed to keep his liberal base placated during this politically difficult time. His sudden return to themes of economics, inequality, and government activism is a recapitulation of his successful 2012 message of "caring about people." Hammering uncaring Republicans, giving speeches before adoring, raucous crowds, bus tours—this isn’t how presidents behave in an off year. It’s how they behave in an election year.

For Obama, that election year has already begun. In the summer of 2012, his lieutenants spent millions on negative, dishonest advertisements that successfully defined Romney as a heartless private equity tycoon. In 2014, however, there is no single candidate for them to define. Instead they have to define the entire Republican Party—not only as a bunch of rapacious Objectivists, but also, and more importantly, as a mob eager to deprive minorities and women of civil rights.

That is why the president lately has been "speaking personally about race." The threat of a return to segregation and Jim Crow is a spur to action—and the greater the perception that such a return is imminent, the better the chances of high Democratic turnout next year. The president’s remarks on Trayvon Martin and race in America, his Justice Department’s continuing fights with Texas over the Voting Rights Act, the steady drumbeat of rhetoric suggesting the right to vote is in peril, the president’s suggestion in a recent New York Times interview that if his economic program is not implemented "racial tensions won’t get better; they may get worse," all heighten the stakes for his most committed supporters. True, none of these messages has the subtlety of last year’s "They’re going to put y’all back in chains." But that’s what makes Joe so special.

The "war on women" resumed earlier this summer when Texas state senator Wendy Davis catapulted into celebrity—and into the pages of Vogue—with her highly publicized, and highly ineffective, filibuster of state abortion regulations. Expect Republican candidates for House, Senate, and governor to be questioned not on their views of abortion but on their views of contraception. And wait, as legions of Democratic trackers are waiting, for the inevitable gaffe involving abortion and rape.

A spirited and risk-taking GOP could rally its electorate and respond to the inevitable attacks and missteps with an affirmative, unapologetic program that addressed national security, the economy, and the condition of American society. If you see it, let me know. At the moment, the Republican message is limited to highlighting scandals and the problems with Obamacare. It’s reactive, not active. What would be the agenda if, say, John Boehner suddenly became president? What would Republicans do? End the Fed?

Yes, with a Republican House, president and vice president, and 50 Senators, they could repeal Obamacare. But what would replace it?

The Republican Party was lulled into a similar complacency in 1998 when they assumed impeachment was message enough to gain seats. Instead they lost five. Plenty of people were convinced the economy and Obama’s manifest failures would doom him in 2012. Every day provides a new, horrible reminder that they were wrong.

"The majority is at risk," an unnamed Republican strategist told Byron York earlier this week. It may not look that way now. But it didn’t look that way in September 2005, either. Be afraid.