WASHINGTON--As they enter this difficult election year, Democrats seem ready to engage yet again in a debate they never seem to tire of: whether winning demands "moving to the center" or "mobilizing the base."
If they get stuck on this one, they're in for a very bad time.
The simple truth is that in midterm elections, no party can win without its base because turnout is lower than in presidential elections. Those who do vote are more committed to their parties and their ideological priorities.
Behind the 1994 Republican midterm sweep was a dispirited Democratic base unhappy about the failure of heath care reform, grumpy about the economy, and badly split over the North American Free Trade Agreement for which President Clinton pushed so hard. While Democrats stayed home, Republicans mobbed the polls and won races all the way down the ballot. It's the midterm rule: No base, no victory.
But this doesn't mean independents or swing voters can be ignored, and there are ways to turn out the base that don't turn off the middle. For the out party, opposition to the in party is often enough. Democrats swept the 2006 midterms because their base was wildly enthusiastic about rebuking George W. Bush, and the political center had turned on the president, too. Republicans would like to repeat that in reverse this year.
Preventing this will require President Obama to draw on what he did in 2008 when he inspired the left and won the middle. If he's lucky, an improving economy might do part of his work for him, and he intends to focus relentlessly on jobs between now and Election Day.
The president must distance himself from Wall Street, to which his administration looks much too close. The bank bailouts and the arrogant behavior of the titans of finance enrage not only progressives, but also moderate middle-class voters unaccustomed to multimillion-dollar bonuses. On the right, the tea party movement gains traction by casting big government and the big banks as unseemly bedfellows.
Selling health care reform as real progress is also key to winning both the middle and the left. Many progressives are disillusioned over the loss of the public option. Less ideological voters wonder what they will get out of the bill. Both groups need reassurance about a plan tarred by the convoluted legislative process that created it.
As the Senate and House make a deal on the final bill, they need to keep an eye on where progressives and middle-of-the-road voters agree. That would include making insurance affordable for middle- and lower-middle-income Americans, securing additional concessions from the drug companies, and strengthening insurance company regulation.
At the same time, the president will have to make clear that legislation on certain controversial issues--notably immigration reform and a cap-and-trade plan on carbon--simply can't happen unless a significant number of Republicans are willing to cooperate upfront in crafting proposals that can get 60 Senate votes. This would put a public burden for achieving comity on the Republicans. After the bitterly partisan health care fight, the public has little stomach for another lengthy legislative battle that would drown out discussion of the economy, its highest priority.
Republicans could also make mistakes that would take the focus off the Democrats. Their politicizing the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt created a backlash that rallied even disillusioned progressives to Obama's side. (No one is more effective in ginning up Democratic loyalists than Dick Cheney.) The growing power of the GOP's right wing gives Democrats an additional lever to use in recapturing moderates. And the tea party crowd could force even quite conservative candidates into debilitating primaries.
Republicans who don't face primaries can cast themselves as pragmatic problem-solvers from the beginning of their campaigns, as Bob McDonnell did so effectively in last year's Virginia governor's race. But having to win over increasingly conservative primary voters can force Republican candidates to move far outside the mainstream. Representative Parker Griffith of Alabama got a taste of this when he abandoned the Democrats--and was welcomed to the Republican Party with allegations from primary opponents that he was a species of liberal.
Democrats will almost certainly lose House and Senate seats. But they can escape a rout if they avoid going around in circles by constantly wondering if they should tack left or right. Steadiness in governing, a bit of tactical shrewdness and a little help from the Republicans may be enough to save them from the abyss.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
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