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How the Presidential Election Impacts Congressional Strategy

Over the next few days, a group of Congressional experts will try to answer the big questions that came out of the Capitol last year: Were the Democrats as hapless as the press made them out to be? How could've they been more effective in meeting those filibustering Republicans head-on? What happened with the timetable for withdrawal? And, hey, where's Rahm when you need him? You can read their responses here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven.

From: Michelle Cottle

To: Eve Fairbanks and Norman Ornstein

Subject: How the Presidential Election Impacts Congressional Strategy

Pelosi and Co. were willing to play ball with Republicans on the AMT reform. And the House chairmen have been encouraged all year to report out bills that are “bipartisan” (read: more centrist than they personally might prefer). Even the House Employee Non-Discrimination Act bill pulled Republican votes. So, presumably, House leadership agrees with Norm’s advice to cut the occasional deal when necessary.

As for the Senate, however, maybe I'm falling into the Dems-aren't-as-good-at-street-fighting-as-Republicans trap when I read Norm’s response and think: No way they should risk this.

Norm notes that Dems would have to handle the situation “adroitly.” I don't think that begins to cover it. Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that no one in the Senate knows how to do a real filibuster, virtually ensuring they would screw it up. The Dems would be facing a Republican party--including the bully-pulpit power that attends even an unpopular president--committed to spending its days making sure Americans “understood” that it was the majority now being “obstructionist” on vital matters such as war. (Something Bush has already done a bit.) As noted, the Dems did accomplish a fair amount this year, which arguably wouldn’t have happened with a more blow-it-up approach. Sure they had plenty of problems as well--especially toward the end. But the bulk of their p.r./job-approval nightmares came from the war, about which, we agree, there was nothing much they could do. And while Iraq may not be the country’s sole preoccupation these days, it remains a primary one (especially for the base)--and a subject which the Mommy Party must handle very carefully, especially with the presidency on the line.

Which brings us to the complicating factor of the POTUS race. For the next 10 months, no one will be paying attention to Congress--unless it does something monumentally stupid, venal, or controversial. The last thing Democrats want is for Reid or Pelosi--the latter of whom has taken great pains not to do anything that would enable Republicans to tar her as a wild-eyed extremist--to emerge as an in-your-face revolutionary type who could be hung around the neck of the entire party à la Newt or Tom DeLay. Dems want to be seen as tough, but they also need to appear reasonable and statesmanlike. Under those circumstances, it’s hard to see them embracing a “What the heck! Anything has got to be better than this!” approach. Going back to Norm’s analogy, sometimes even the best-organized hunger strike just plain won’t work.

That said, there’s little question that Democrats in both houses have got to get more creative with their p.r. so that their accomplishments don’t continue to get “lost in the noise.” This means doing a better job not just tooting their own horns, but also smacking the opposition in a way that doesn’t make them sound whiny (always more of a risk for Dems than Republicans.) Both Reid’s and Pelosi’s offices have been sending out happy little lists of what Congress accomplished this year. And Senate leadership circulated a “Special Obstruction Alert!” detailing the “Bush Republicans’” record-breaking filibuster frequency. But somehow it lacks oomph. Yes, it mentions that the American people’s priorities are being ignored, but it doesn’t have the same outrage, the same intensity, the same vitriol as your typical Republican attack on Dems. Back to Eve’s psychological musings, I’ve always suspected that Dems cling to some high-minded notion of congressional comity and statesmanship--which seems sorely misguided, despite the perennial public hand-wringing about the need to (as a certain “uniter” once vowed) “change the tone” in Washington. Yes? No? Maybe?

(Read Norman Ornstein's response here.) 

Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor at The New Republic. Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic. Norman Ornstein is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, in 2006, of The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann.

By Michelle Cottle, Eve Fairbanks, and Norman Ornstein