If you’ve been listening to the pundits, you’ve heard it a hundred times. The host points to a possible contradiction to the “enthusiasm gap” theory, then the Republican functionary stares out of the right side of your TV’s split screen, smiles, chuckles and parrots, “Well, the Democrats would love to switch places with us. You ask them privately and they’ll tell you they’d rather be the Republicans.”
Maybe that was true a month ago. A week ago. Not any more. With two weeks to go before November 2, I’d rather be the Democrats.
I was never all that concerned. No matter the year, no matter the candidates, the races always tighten up in the last few weeks before the election. But that dynamic is behaving like it’s on steroids this year.
Just about anyone who is going to be convinced to vote Republican has already been convinced. They’ve been frothing at the mouth for a year and a half and may even be showing signs of fatigue. Staying mad for endless months does that. The Democrats, on the other hand, have just begun to rally the troops. Their get-out-the-vote effort is already countering the GOP’s get-out-your-wallets effort.
In poll after poll, the Dems are closing the gaps and, in many cases, pulling ahead. It’s true in the telephone polls. It’s true in the early voting. It’s true in the generic are-you-voting-Republican-or-Democrat surveys. And it’s true in what I expect will turn out to be the key to victory: the President’s approval rating. On October 14, Obama’s approval rating was 43%, almost as low as it has ever gone. But since then, it has gone up a point or two each consecutive day. On Monday it stood at 46%, tying the disapproval rating for the first time in months. On Tuesday it surged two more points to 48% while disapproval sank by the same factor. So, suddenly, the President has a not-insubstantial positive rating — and it all happened over the past half week since he and the First Lady hit the campaign trail and began talking up Democratic accomplishments. Why is this important? The Republicans know why. 2004: Karl Rove’s master stroke. President Bush’s approval ratings were also bouncing around the low- to mid-40s all summer and autumn, and Rove knew his boss had to be above 50% on election day to defeat John Kerry. With the timing of an orchestra conductor, Rove was able to control the spin cycle perfectly to get Bush just over that 50% on just that day, and we all know the results. I guarantee you, David Axelrod knows those results.
I won’t predict that the Republican wave this year will completely fizzle. In all candor, if we were only looking at governors’ mansions, I really would rather be a Republican; the election-night gubernatorial charts will be a sea of red by midnight. I expect the conservatives to pick up at least 25 House seats, maybe 30. But not 39. And they’ll probably reach somewhere above 45 seats in the Senate, but not 51. So where does that leave the GOP?
Out in the kind of cold you can only see from Sarah Palin’s house.
On the House side, the difficult legislating has already been done. There really isn’t a lot to fight about anymore. And there won’t be a whole lot of party loyalty on either side. The Tea Party candidates owe little to the Republican leadership and may even be in open rebellion against their seniors, so these freshmen will be difficult to whip into line. And we’ve known for a long time that the Democratic caucus is about as lock-steppy as the Israeli Knesset.
On the Senate side, the Democrats will still wield the gavel by just about everyone’s estimation (although it might not be in Harry Reid’s hand). So they get to make the rules. All those procedural landmines like filibusters, secret holds, unanimous consent and the like — those aren’t enshrined in law. Those are gentlemen’s agreements. If the senators won’t behave like gentlemen (in the gender-inclusive sense of the word, even if I have to invent that here), then the majority — 50 plus the Vice President — get to change the rules. The only definitive rule is that rules can’t be changed in the middle of a congressional session, or you’d have seen that after the first week of the healthcare debate. I expect that the removal of privileges will make the Senate the cordial, collegial club it once was. They can have those privileges back once they’ve learned to behave themselves.
Put another way, this leaves the Republicans in a minority that is at once greater in number and lesser in influence.
What if I’m wrong about all this, though? What if the GOP pulls off a miracle like they did in 1994 and John Boehner and Mitch McConnell get their Christmas presents seven weeks early?
Again, there’s not that much left of the Obama agenda to legislate. Immigration reform, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and cap-and-trade remain, but they all have bipartisan support once incumbents are done campaigning. The President correctly if unwisely told the press that he intends in the next two years to focus on implementing the laws Congress passed in the past two years. Those Tea Party candidates who’d be unmanageable in the minority would be a nightmare in the majority. They don’t really have any solutions. You cannot cut taxes and debt simultaneously unless you’re willing to end Social Security and Medicare — which they are — as well as all the corporate welfare in the Defense budget — which they’re not. So some will be coopted into more centrist positions and risk being teabagged themselves in two years. Others will double-down on their lunacy and risk buyers’ regret on the part of their broader constituencies in the general election. In 2012, when the economic expansion will be far more tangible, when we’re out of both Iraq and Afghanistan, when the bailout is substantively paid back, when the benefits of healthcare and financial reform have become more evident or at least hasn’t caused the sky to fall, and when a resurgently popular president is running at the top of the ticket, the Democrats will retake Capitol Hill and hold it through at least 2016.
So as of today, and for the next six years at least, I’d rather be the Democrats.