Questioning the midterm conventional wisdom

QUESTIONING THE MIDTERM CONVENTIONAL WISDOM…. A year ago, most observers seemed to think Democrats were poised to fare pretty well in the 2010 midterms. When House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) began arguing that a GOP majority was plausible, Stuart Rothenberg, just 11 months ago, described the idea as “lunacy.” Rothenberg said, “The chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero. Not ‘close to zero.’ Not ‘slight’ or ‘small.’ Zero.”

Funny how expectations can change quickly, isn’t it? Eight months before the midterms, the conventional wisdom has swung in the polar opposite direction — Dems aren’t just going to suffer severe losses, their House majority is almost certainly gone and their Senate majority is in jeopardy.

At least, that’s the current conventional wisdom. Expectations have shifted wildly over the last eight months, and might shift again over the next eight. Hell, they might even swing back and forth more than once before voters actually head to the polls.

What’s interesting is the fact that assumptions about a Democratic bloodbath are starting to get questioned for the first time in a while. Josh Marshall noted the other day that there are “hints of a turnaround,” and pointed to some compelling data to bolster the point.

In a sense this shouldn’t be surprising. Dems had the tough November elections followed by seven straight weeks of demoralizing and ugly wrangling over health care. Then that was followed by the stunning upset in Massachusetts which, accompanied by the resultant Dem face-plant on Health Care managed to send conservatives through the roof and profoundly demoralize Democrats. So it’s not surprising that with a little time for things to cool down and some somewhat better news on Health Care Reform that Dem numbers would at least bounce back a touch.

Still, I think it’s worth keeping an eye out to see if this becomes a trend. Because we’re still in a highly volatile political period. And I don’t think it’s clear yet that how things look today is how they’re going to look in the fall.

I heard similar remarks this week in some of my conversations with Dems on the Hill. I wouldn’t characterize their tone as “optimism,” per se, but rather the “absence of despair.” That may not sound like much, but it was a marked improvement from, say, a month ago.

What’s more, this thinking is becoming more common.

Ezra Klein acknowledged yesterday that he’s “been toying with becoming an optimist.”

It looks to me like Democrats are going to pass health-care reform, and the near-death experience has reminded the base that there’s a lot to like about the bill. It also looks like the economy is recovering, and there’s still a lot of stimulus money left to flood into the system. That’s making Republicans nervous, and so they’ve been breaking ranks on the Senate’s recent jobs bills, with a good number crossing the aisle to vote for them. That suggests that the Democrats have hit on a good legislative strategy to push through the rest of the year. Add in that Chris Dodd is moving forward on financial regulation, and now Democrats have a way to put themselves on the right side of anger at Wall Street.

Come November, you could imagine a Democratic Party that’s passed health-care reform, can boast about a fragile economic recovery, and can put the Republicans on the defensive on at least one or two key issues. That lends itself to an argument of accomplishment, a warning that you don’t want to switch horses midstream, and normal campaigning. Now, I don’t want to go too far in this argument: Optimism here means something like Democrats will lose 20 or 30 seats in the House rather than 50 or 60. Losses are assured. But it’s increasingly looking like catastrophic losses aren’t.

Part of the significance of shifting attitudes is that they can become self-fulfilling — if Democrats start thinking there’s still some reason for hope, the perceptions themselves produce real-world consequences. Incumbents weighing retirement might be more inclined to stick around; donors inclined to give up might be more inclined to chip in; lawmakers might even feel a stronger incentive to get some added accomplishments under their belt to improve their chances.

The notion that Dems are in a good position is pretty silly — we’re still talking about degrees of bad. But it’s now possible to at least imagine the majority avoiding an electoral catastrophe. To improve their odds, Democrats can cultivate some strengths (finish health care, create some jobs, pass an energy bill, repeal DADT, reform the way Wall Street operates, tackle immigration) and exploit Republican weaknesses (extreme ideology and agenda, stench of recent failure, deliberately driving away moderates, controversial voting record, no ideas or solutions).

I wouldn’t count on success, but for the first time in a while, the notion of modest Democratic losses doesn’t seem ridiculous.