The rationale behind dubious optimism

THE RATIONALE BEHIND DUBIOUS OPTIMISM…. Whenever Democratic leaders, especially on the Hill, are asked about the likely outcome of the midterm elections, the message is largely the same: the party will not lose its majority. Dems will concede that it’s a difficult environment, and that losing some seats seems inevitable, but the chances of a Republican majority tend to be ruled out categorically.

Indeed, note the ferocity of the response from congressional Dems when White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the possibility a GOP takeover exists. The disgust among Democrats on the Hill was not well hidden — the party has a message, Gibbs was told, and this wasn’t it.

Reader G.S. emailed over the weekend to question the wisdom of this strategy. I thought it was an interesting point, so I’m publishing the relevant portion of the note with permission:

“Repeating ‘everything will be fine’ sends the wrong message. Instead, send a wake-up call. I don’t want doom-and-gloom but a little panic can go a long way.

“Want to close the enthusiasm gap? Have Pelosi ring the bell and proclaim, ‘The majority is on the line! Time to get off the couch!’

“I don’t see the downside.”

I can appreciate where G.S. is coming from. When asked, party leaders really do rule out the possibility of a GOP takeover, and given the polls and various predictions, it can start to sound like denial. When Speaker Pelosi, describing the Democratic chances of keeping the House, told Chuck Todd over the summer, “Take it to the bank,” I suspect more than a few folks thought, “Really?”

But there’s a rationale behind all of this. Some of it is just how parties operate — who goes around predicting their own team’s failure? — but the more important angle to keep in mind is what Democrats hope to avoid.

The real danger as the cycle enters the home stretch is the possibility of a self-fulfilling breakdown. Already facing a headwind, the very last thing Democrats want is a party apparatus that assumes failure is inevitable. If Democratic pillars — donors, unions, activist heavyweights, etc. — decide a GOP takeover is a foregone conclusion, they’ll start withholding support, canceling fundraisers, scrapping election-season plans, and shifting their attention to 2012 races.

The feared result, in other words, becomes a reality by virtue of the fear. If the party assumes the cycle will be a disaster, the disaster becomes that much more likely.

What the Democratic campaign committees and party leaders need, of course, is the opposite. Fear can be powerful motivator, but it can also be debilitating. It’s why we hear leading Dems expressing optimism, even if they’re the only ones feeling optimistic.