A Congressional Strategy For Now and Later

It’s a sad sign of the condition of political journalism (or of WaPo editing) that two solid reporters, Scott Wilson and Philip Rucker, make it through a fairly lengthy piece on the president’s midterm election strategy without mentioning, much less explaining, the large structural obstacles to a Democratic takeover of the House in 2014. Yeah, they do mention the history of poor performance by the party controlling the White House in second-term midterms (1998 is the only exception to the “rule” against gains). But there’s nothing about redistricting, the built-in GOP advantages in House races due to more efficient vote distribution, or the turnout problem Democrats now face in midterms featuring (since time immemorial) a older and whiter electorate.

Salon‘s Steve Kornacki discusses these factors in suggesting that any Obama-led drive for a House victory in 2014 is at best a long shot (I’d add to Steve’s analysis that even a House takeover might have a limited impact if Republicans retain veto power in the Senate and Harry Reid continues to insist on bipartisan approval for any filibuster reforms).

Koracki suggests a better avenue for second-term legislative gains by Obama might be promoting divisions in the opposition. After all, the House GOP leadership has already seen fit to abandon the Hastert Rule three times this year:

[A]s long as the Republicans maintain a Tea Party posture on fiscal issues, Obama’s second term will be a frustrating one for Democrats. But it probably won’t be as frustrating as the second half of his first term. This time around, there appears to be enough dissension and enough nervousness within the GOP’s ranks for the White House to rack up some real achievements. So while winning back the House would is the ideal scenario for Democrats, they might want to pursue a back-up plan too, one aimed at ratcheting up the turmoil within the GOP and creating more openings for compromise.

I’m not sure there’s really a conflict between these two potential Obama strategies, so long as they are pursued realistically. Dealing harshly with the majority Tea Party faction of the GOP should lower that party’s approval ratings to the point where vulnerable Members might want to distance themselves from the extremism, aside from the fact that Obama’s more conspicuous toughness towards the opposition increases their anti-Obama derangement in ways that increase Republican self-isolation. If the administration and its congressional allies can find ways to accomplish things (other than preventing GOP sabotage of first-term accomplishments), that’s great; otherwise they may well be setting the table for 2016, when both a Democratic House and even a supermajority in the Senate can become significantly more likely. Every seat won in 2014 helps that prospect, so there’s no harm in going for the gold now as well as later.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.