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New Day Rising (The Case For Democratic Optimism--Real or Fake)

I recommend to all Democrats a manifesto from Ed Kilgore, James Vega, and J.P. Green, which recognizes how likely it is that Democratic factions will turn on each other in a self-destructive frenzy and urges them not to. It’s an excellent piece, although I’m tempted to add a little “good luck with that” sarcasm. Will Rogers, and all that.

Speaking of the Democrats, one positive impression I have of their reaction for far this week is that there’s a lot less despair than there was in 1994 (this Jonathan Chait post notwithstanding). I remember arguing with a Democratic pollster in December 1994 who was convinced that the Democratic Party was entirely doomed, and it would probably be replaced by a new third party. Perhaps that was a bit extreme of an example, but there was a lot of hopelessness going around that winter -- it sure seemed to me that very few Democratic activists or campaign professionals thought Clinton would be reelected, for example. 

Why should anyone care about a little pessimism? Because Democrats wound up with a relatively lousy crop of candidates in 1996 who were unable to take advantage of Clinton’s popularity and Newt’s disasters. 

The one thing that the political science literature tells us that matters in Congressional elections and is to a large extent within the control of the parties is the quality of candidates. Very soon, politicians will be making decisions about 2012. Incumbent Democrats who now find themselves lost in the Siberia of House Minority status, and who in many cases will be faced with the chore of learning and appealing to a significantly different constituency thanks to redistricting, will have to decide whether to retire. Ambitious pols -- state legislators, local prosecutors, former Members of the House who just lost their reelection bids -- will have to decide whether 2012 will be promising.

What political scientists have learned is that this is a case in which party prophesies are to a large extent self-fulfilling. Believe that the party is going over a cliff, and you’ll wind up with third-rate candidates, who will then lose -- not because of the general environment, but because bad candidates lose Congressional elections. Believe that your party is about to benefit from the wave, and you’ll wind up with excellent candidates who will win regardless of whether such a “wave” actually existed.

It seems to me that the GOP did a great job of selling their own potential candidates that 2010 would be like 1994. That’s behind the data that Brendan Nyhan reported last week about the large spike in quality GOP candidates, especially challengers. I strongly suspect that when all is said and done, that’s going to be the controllable variable that made the most difference, much more than choices about pushing the agenda for the Democrats or opposing it for the Republicans (with the possible exception of economic policy, but it’s always hard to know the effects of any potential changes, there).

Now, it’s the Democrats’ turn to react to adversity with confidence. First up: keeping what they have. They lost 20 House Members to retirement in the 1996 cycle, and that was without redistricting; that’s a terrible number for what turned out to be a good year for the party. Can they do better this time around? To do so, they’ll have to persuade not only wavering Members of the House and Senators that Democratic chances are good in 2012, but also persuade the people who those Members talk to -- including fundraisers and donors, including activists within the district, and especially including the Democratic establishment in Washington. 

What’s on their side, this time around, is that the election was much less of a shock than 1994 was. Moreover, the example of the Clinton years, which has worked so well for the GOP for the last couple of years, now flips: while activists may not remember 1996, surely much of the Washington establishment does.

The rest is up to Democratic elites. There are a lot of things that opinion leaders cannot do -- a good speech from a president cannot make out-party rank-and-file, or even independents, change their minds about policy. This, however, is one that a strong effort by party leaders should be able to affect, because the target audience here -- other active Democrats -- is ready and willing to listen to what party elites have to say. 

So, whatever they actually believe, Democrats should pound the 1996-2012 analogies, remind themselves that reversals are not only possible but happen all the time (I bet there are all sorts of other historical examples easy to dig up: liberal bloggers, consider that a challenge!), and convince themselves and anyone who will listen to them that good times for Dems are, once again, right around the corner. 

At least until candidate recruitment season is over. If they want a time to bemoan their prospects, I’d recommend saving it for late spring/early summer 2012, after the last Congressional filing dates but before the presidential conventions. As long as they snap out of it by mid-summer, I would think that talking down their chances at that point will have absolutely no effect on anything.