If the Democrats fail to capture a majority in either House of Congress tomorrow, they can attribute their failure primarily to two factors, the Republicans’ superior Get Out the Vote (GOTV) operation and their own party’s failure to articulate a compelling agenda, their own inability to make clear what they plan to do once in power. Because so far, they have yet to tell the American people what they stand for — besides opposing President Bush.
Over a year ago, I suggested that the 2006 elections could resemble those of 1998 where the GOP expected to make gains against the Democrats merely largely because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal — as well as the Six-Year Itch. My party ran against Democratic corruption, but failed to offer an alternative agenda of its own — and ended up losing seats in the House (while breaking even in the Senate). That year, without anything to vote for, many Republicans stayed home.
This year, in the waning days of the campaign, there is some sign of an absence of enthusiasm for the Democrats. A recent rally for the Democratic gubernatorial and Senatorial candidates in Michigan featuring former President Bill Clinton “drew at most 500 people, the fewest at any Clinton campaign event in any state this year.”
The clear sign of hope for the GOP this year is that, perhaps because of the Democrats’ absence of agenda, there appears to be, as Bruce noted earlier today, a last-minute surge to the GOP. (And since Bruce posted his piece, another poll confirmed this surge, this one by “the Democracy Corps. . ., a Democratic outfit, finds the Dems with only a four-point edge on the generic preference ballot, 49%-45%, with the Republicans closing fast.“)
This surge seems to reflect a pattern reminiscent of the election of 1992 — in Great Britain — where, as I noted in June, “voters deciding at the last minute opted for the incumbent party, not confident that the Kinnock, from Labour’s left wing, could pull the UK out of its then-lingering recession.”
Noting a similar trend, blogger Robert Musil thinks “there is a very good chance that undecided voters will break disproportionately towards the GOP in this race – especially in Congressional races.” While he acknowledges that the Iraq war helps the Democrats, he observes that the information on that issue “is all out, and has been force-fed for weeks to virtually every voter. Anyone who is going to make a decision to vote one way or the other on the basis of that issue has almost certainly done so already.”
The rest of the “major issues,” he claims “favor the GOP: nearly historic low unemployment, historic stock market highs, stabilized low interest rates, historic high home ownership rates, declining gas prices.” (Now that I’ve whet your appetite, read the whole thing as well as his cautionary followup post. H/t Mickey Kaus.)
While the dynamics of the year, notably the “phenomenon which pundits dub” as the “Six-Year Itch” works against the party in power, the Democrats have, by and large, failed to capitalize on GOP’s missteps this year. At the same time, Republican leaders, recognizing their disadvantage this year, have focused on the party’s GOTV operation, credited for helping the party overcome the dynamics of 2002, another off-year election where the party won back the Senate and made gains in the House.
In the final hours of this campaign, it seems that a number of factors are turning in the GOP’s favor. While this seems to guarantee that the GOP will hold the Senate, the House remains up for grabs.
If this momentum continues until tomorrow, the GOP may well hold both Houses of Congress. If so, we will have learned a lesson which Democrats don’t seem to have learned from Bill Clinton, the most successful Democratic politician of the second half of the twentieth century.
Clinton, unlike his non-incumbent British counterpart in 1992, understood that voters wanted something to vote for. Aware that Americans wouldn’t just vote George H.W. Bush out of office, he offered a moderate agenda, advocating welfare reform, a middle-class tax cut and supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This year, given that one of his acolytes, Rahm Emanuel, chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), one would expect the party to follow in the former president’s footsteps, offering a real agenda. Instead, Democrats have gambled that running against a president with mediocre job-approval numbers in a year whose dynamics favor them, would be enough to put them over the top.
While the Democrats could still pull this out, had they campaigned as did Clinton in 1992 and 1996, I would give them better odds. And Rahm Emanuel would be much less “nervous” than he has been in recent days.