Harry Reid To Charles And David Koch: Come At Me, Bros (Huffington Post)
The political calculus for why the sitting president’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections is fairly simple: Although the old adage saying “all politics is local” isn’t entirely true, it’s certainly true that although the approval rating of Congress as a whole is always dismal, individual members of Congress, especially in their home districts, almost always enjoy much higher approval ratings. If you’re not in the same party as the current president, and you’re campaigning against someone who is, you can undercut their popularity by pointing out they’re in the same party as the President. (Even presidents who have reasonably good popularity ratings still tend to be very divisive; it’s only when their popularity shoots through the roof, like Bush 43′s did in the aftermath of 09.11, that being in the president’s party stops being a liability.)
Despite conservative hullabaloo to the contrary, President Obama’s approval ratings right now aren’t substantially different from most other presidents entering their sixth year in office. That being said, Obama’s hardly popular outside of his base right now, and Democrats always have a harder time in midterm elections because their lower turnouts favour Republican turnout models. Add in the fact that Senate Democrats will be defending their gains from their watershed 2008 year, and all signs point to Democrats having a tremendously uphill climb just to avoid another 2010-style wipeout at the polls.
The last time a sixth-year Democratic president faced a midterm election, though, Democrats actually gained seats in both houses of Congress. 1998 was probably the low point for Bill Clinton’s presidency, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal had stained his legacy just like Clinton (insert ribald joke about that blue dress here). Although the American public was largely disgusted by Clinton’s actions, by November they had grown even more tired of how congressional Republicans were inflating the scandal so much. With one of the architects of the 1994 Republican Revolution, Senator Bob Dole, in retirement after his failed presidential campaign, that left the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, as Democrats’ ideal target. Across the nation, Democrats were able to pin Republican congressional candidates as being in league with Gingrich and the others who were making too big of a deal over President Clinton’s indiscretions, and Democrats were able to gain seats in both houses of Congress. Gingrich relinquished his speakership shortly after the election.
There are two big lessons to take away from the 1998 midterms, one for each major party. For Republicans, the lesson is not to do something so stupid that it turns lots of Americans off of your party at a time when you’re in a good position to benefit from Democrats’ unpopularity. This is why Republicans’ recent announcement that they wouldn’t pass any major legislation for the remainder of the year, as galling as it may be to many of us, is a wise tactical move. When Republicans forced that long government shutdown this past fall, and played another game of chicken with the debt ceiling, public opinion of congressional Republicans as a whole cratered to just 9%. By point of comparison, American support of socialism usually polls around 10-12%. Following that debacle, though, Republicans (albeit not without some kvetching from their far-right) passed a bipartisan two-year budget and an extension of the debt ceiling that runs through the end of 2014, preventing another fustercluck like we had last autumn. They’re basically playing the political equivalent of American football’s “prevent defence” from now until November, giving Democrats some room to move while running down the clock, to preserve the lead they perceive they have right now. We’ll have to wait until November to see if it works or not, but right now it feels like it could very well be a winning strategy. (Given how indoctrinated Americans have been in the notion that “government can’t do anything right” these past thirty-three years, deliberate broad inaction by Congress may actually play well with swing voters. Mind you, “doing nothing” means that House Republicans are still passing “repeal Obamacare” bills ad nauseum.)
For Democrats, the lesson of 1998 is to find an unpopular Republican figurehead to use in order to scare swing voters just like Republicans are currently using President Obama, someone to disparage Republican candidates by implying they’re in cahoots with that figurehead. That’s probably the reason why Democratic groups, and some congressional Democrats like Harry Reid, have been focusing on the Koch brothers so much lately; the Koch brothers’ involvement in politics and right-wing astroturf groups since Obama became president has been widely documented, and they’re relatively easy to plaster with the “out-of-touch old white rich people who want to bankrupt working-class Americans to make more money for themselves and their rich friends” label, a tactic that worked very well when it was used against Mitt Romney in 2012.
Romney, however, couldn’t have done a better job of allowing himself to be stereotyped like that, making repeated missteps that only added to the negative image that Democrats were pinning on him. Whenever you see news stories about the Kochs, though, the brothers are always shown in still photos, because they very deliberately stay out of the media spotlight. While this tactic makes it easier to paint them as the “big money in the shadows,” the great big nasty conservative bogeymen trying to buy democracy out from under America, you can only sell that stereotype to people who follow politics closely enough to know who the Koch brothers are. That’s not really a broad section of the American public (especially a public that’s spending more and more time working just to keep a roof over their heads), and it makes me doubt the wisdom of Democrats trying to make the Kochs a big issue in this year’s midterms.
If the Democrats of 1998 made that year’s election a referendum on Newt Gingrich, could this year’s Democrats do the same with the current Speaker of the House, John Boehner? I doubt it. Yes, Boehner is on television a fair amount, and he’s had moments that would be easy to skewer in campaign commercials, but he’s never been the figurehead that Gingrich was for his party. Gingrich had the prestige of ending Republicans’ forty-year minority status in the House, and he made his reputation before then by being one of the most media-savvy Republicans in Washington, leveraging the benefits of every medium he could get his message on — even that dusty corner of the cable universe called C-SPAN — to get the Republican message out there, becoming a clear and charismatic Republican leader in the process. Boehner, by comparison, has never been that popular even within his own party, and is often depicted as an obstacle to allowing Tea Party Republicans to run roughshod over the party. He’s admitted to having no ambitions beyond his current station, and I don’t think Democrats will have an easy job of making him emblematic of congressional Republicans as a whole, especially with so many charismatic Republicans in the news every week in the leadup to announcing their candidacies for the 2016 presidential election.
Similarly, trying to paint any other elected Republican as the face of the whole party will be undermined by the fact that none of them are in effective positions of leadership like Boehner. There’s certainly no shortage of nationally-known Republicans who would turn off moderate voters with some of the things they’ve said and done — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Louie Goehmert all come readily to mind — but for voters in purple states, the actions of some congressperson from Texas or Kentucky isn’t really going to mean much to them. Similarly, for all the problems Chris Christie has been having, he’s not even in Washington, which makes it all but impossible to make him an issue in congressional campaigns.
Not that it’s my job to advise Democrats on how to run their campaigns — you couldn’t pay me enough money to do that — but to me, it seems that the Democrats’ best bogeyman for the 2014 election is right-wing media itself. Up until the Tea Party movement, there was at least a small disconnect between the lunatic politics of right-wing media and what elected Republicans actually tried to pass into law, but unless you extend the mainstream of right-wing media out to include the apocalyptic ravings of Glenn Beck and … whatever the hell it is that Infowars guy does, there’s really no difference right now between what Fox News says should happen and what congressional Republicans try to make American law. Not only would Democrats have a “face” of the Bad, Evil Republican to put in their campaign commercials, they’d have several: Sean Hannity and his verbal bullying, Bill O’Reilly and his red-faced ranting, Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut, and the cast of easily-lampoonable talking heads who rotate on all their shows. When elected Republicans and Republican congressional candidates have appeared on split-screens with these hosts,Democrats would be able to realize even more gains.
Democrats have enough of a problem dealing with the sustained unpopularity of Obamacare, but there are several other issues they could use where they have a majority of voters on their side — they’ve already struck upon raising the minimum wage as one that plays well, even in red states — where not just elected Republicans, but Fox News personalities as well, are on video strongly opposing the majority view. This doesn’t even get into the ridiculousness of things like climate change denial and birtherism. In addition, because Fox News is a corporate entity, I think Democrats would get the same benefits they’d get from focusing on the Koch brothers as a “big corporate evil,” but with the additions of increased public recognition and a wealth of soundbites to play in campaign commercials.
The big potential drawback to this strategy is one I’ve written about before; there is a certain “boy who cried wolf” quality to the Fox News approach, where even the most die-hard opponents of Fox News get tired of hearing about whatever inaccuracy or misanthropy they’re perpetrating now. Asking people if they heard about what someone on Fox News just said, even among politically-active liberals, just gets you a bunch of eyes rolling back in heads and quick attempts to move on to other topics of conversation. If there is a broad national consensus along the lines of “Fox News is full of crap, but what are you gonna do,” then trying to make Fox News a right-wing bogeyman has the potential for backfiring.
I’m not sure that there is a better strategy, though. Until a clear frontrunner for the next Republican presidential candidate emerges — and it looks like that may not happen for a couple of years — there isn’t really an elected Republican who would get good play across the nation as a reason for voters to not vote for other Republicans. To whatever extent the Koch brothers are involved in conservative politics, when you say “Koch brothers” to most Americans, they probably think you’re talking about the guys who invented that soft drink. Turning the right-wing media behemoths into the Bigger Evil Than Obama might not work out, but if Democrats are already facing such steep odds in November, isn’t it worth taking a shot at it now, especially when they’ll have a Republican presidential candidate to campaign against in 2016?