Thursday, April 13, 2006

Catch a Wave And You're Sittin' On Top of the World

(Above: Congressional Democrats bravely discuss whether it's safe to go in the water.)

WILL WE RETAKE THE HOUSE in November? And if not, why not? WaPo:

An 18-month recruitment drive by the Democrats has produced nearly a dozen strong candidates with the potential for unseating House Republicans, but probably not enough to take back control of the House absent a massive anti-incumbent wave this fall, according to House political experts.

Democratic leaders have been heartened by the quality of the candidates they have recruited to challenge vulnerable Republicans.... But Tuesday's special election north of San Diego to fill the seat of former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) showed that the Democrats face an uphill battle to pick up seats even in districts where the Republicans have their backs to the wall. Democrat Francine Busby, running on a theme of ethics in government, finished first in a crowded field of 18 candidates to succeed Cunningham, who was sent to prison after pleading guilty to taking bribes in return for legislative favors.

Busby, a school board member and self-described soccer mom, garnered only 44 percent of the vote and was forced into a June 6 runoff...

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said his party was able to avoid a primary fight in California and is emerging from Tuesday's balloting united and ready to go after independent voters. ***

From a national perspective, the California contest has not changed most analysts' views of the Democrats' chances in November. "If this election comes down to the individual, race-by-race, case-by-case campaigns, like we've seen for the last four cycles, the Democrats don't have enough top-tier candidates to win 15 seats," Amy Walters, a House political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said, referring to a net gain. "But they do have enough second- and third-tier candidates who can ride a wave." ***

"There may be a wave building, but it's still off the shoreline," [analyst Stuart Rothenberg] said. "It certainly didn't hit here."

DCCC officials now refer to their recruitment efforts as putting as many surfboards as they can in the water. But Emanuel's campaign began shortly after Bush's reelection, when there was not even a pro-Democratic ripple.***

"I'd give Rahm a B" for recruitment, Rothenberg said. "There isn't a giant sea change here. Have they had some successes at the margins? Yeah. And maybe that's about all you can do."

To Emanuel's credit, the article describes a relatively savvy effort (including enlisting Congressional spouses led by the wife of Rep. Jay Inslee (WA-1), whom I like already for his efforts to reform salvage logging laws) to reassure potential candidates that running will not ruin their family lives, but it also points out the fundamental flaws in the party's electoral strategy.

The DCCC describes its strategy as "putting surfboards in the water." The article points out that Rahm has done better at recruiting "second and third tier" candidates who might not be able to win contests based on individual merit, mano a mano with their Republican opponents, but who are attractive enough to "ride a wave." One has to ask: what wave?

The Democratic Party's primary strategy lately has been to AVOID "making waves" -- to lay low and hope Bush's own missteps disgust enough voters to provide a narrow Democratic victory in November. When a ripple does appear -- like the significant plurality of voters who voiced dissatisfaction with Bush's warrantless spying -- the party recognizes it too late (why did bloggers notice the polls showing that voters support censure long before our representatives did?), and lets it pass by. To surf, you have to pick a wave early and paddle like hell to catch it; most Democrats (incumbents and establishment-picked rookies alike) are just sitting on their boards out past the breaking point, never actually catching a ride, always waiting for "the right wave" that never comes.

There's still time to make Emanuel's strateg work. The DLC's favorite game of shaving marginal gains from the center isn't going to work this time (just as it hasn't worked since 1994 -- five straight elections). But Emanuel's "surfers" could do fine if the party would give them a wave to ride. And there are promising waves out there. The Busby election proved that "ethics in government" -- a passive strategy that merely says "we're less dishonest than Tom Delay" -- won't work. But Russ Feingold knows what will. Look at recent developments: the Attorney General has testified that the President has the power to order warrantless surveillance not only of international communications, but domestic ones. Voters won't like that IF someone other than bloggers point it out to them. He also hinted that there are surveillance programs besides the one NSA program that's made the news. Voters won't like that IF someone besides bloggers point it out to them. Bush admits that he and Cheney leaked classified intelligence information to the media at the same time as they were pretending to be outraged at intelligence leaks. Voters won't like that IF Democrats would just stoke the fire.

A unified Democratic Party, shouting "Enough Is Enough!" at every microphone within earshot all the time, highlighting the Administration's abuses of power -- that would create a groundswell that candidates could ride to victory. Nearly half the voters are there already.

The DLC, which hasn't ever been able to get past the embarrassment of losing the "Reagan Democrats" in 1980, keeps picking at the marginal voters. But the party's primary election strategy depends, not on ripples, but on waves. Its leaders need to get with the program, and provide a groundswell for its candidates to ride.


Via said...

Your surfboard metaphor is apt. The Dems are still twiddling their collective toes in the water.

They must learn, and quickly, to frame the issues rather than letting the Rethugs choose the language of the debate.

WhiteyOFay said...

To create a wave you need to stir up the waters. And that's just what Vichy Dems are afraid of. They're willing to forego the possibility of rolling over 40 Repubs by inciting a populist "throw the bums out" wave because a couple of their party buddies might get wiped out in the undertow. Pennywise, pound foolish.

The two major parties are stagnant unto death, but their institutional grip on power is so deeply entrenched that all challenges from outside are stifled.

They should take heed of voices from their own not-so-distant past; it was a Democratic pol, JFK, that said, "those that make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable."