Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Close House Races 

It's probably true: redistricting has minimized the number of truly competitive electoral districts in the House of Representatives. All the same, the hot-off-the-presses latest version of the Cook Report, which all politics junkies should probably read, lists 13 truly "toss-up" races. For those of you hoping to maximize the effectiveness of your campaign contributions, the list is worth a look.

Let's not kid ourselves: 13 races out of 435 is hardly a large number. The overall makeup of the House is unlikely to change drastically. On the other hand, unlike in the Senate, party control of the House and the identity of the Speaker are HUGELY important. The difference between a 1-vote Democratic majority and a 1-vote Republican majority is absolutely colossal in terms of what legislation is given floor consideration and the structure of things like amendment consideration and the make-up of conference committees. In short, these 13 races really MATTER.

I keep wondering whether it's possible or desirable for the Democratic Party to "nationalize" these elections. I recall the 1994 Republican landslide election very well: I had just started working on the Hill myself a few months earlier, and suddenly a large fraction of my new friends lost their jobs. My own job security was also thrown into doubt, as the Representative I was working for had to face a recount with a high potential of turning a win into a loss. It was an extremely attention-focusing experience, so my memory is seared with the conventional wisdom at the time: the Republicans' success was due mostly to the clever, nationalized campaign orchestrated by Newt Gingrich.

It might be possible to debate the long-term legislative effectiveness of the 104th Congress, but the electoral legacy of 1994 is hardly in question. Republicans have maintained control of the House for the entire period since that election, and have had a majority in the Senate for most of the interval. If it truly was Gingrich's strategy that led to the "tsunami," then his M.O. is well worth studying.

I bring all of this up because I recall well that the other contributing factor focused on by contemporary commentators was the "angry white man" phenomenon. Supposedly, there were a lot of latent Republican voters out there getting more and more steamed about Democratic excesses. For some reason, these legions of the pissed-off were unable to get themselves to polling stations in adequate numbers until the magic year of 1994. This is where Gingrich's "Contract with America" enters the story; ostensibly, it was Gingrich's positive program that mobilized voters across the country regardless of their particular district's local politics. Somehow, a "throw the bums out" narrative woke up this part of the electorate, whose members had felt too disenfranchised to bother voting before.

There seems to be a belief that there is a similar "angry at the incumbents" feeling out there today, 10 years after Gingrich's so-called "revolution." I wonder whether Gingrich's strategy (or what elements of it) might be brought to bear to Democrats' advantage. What should House Democrats be doing? Are you listening, Nancy Pelosi?

Here's a quick analysis: first, Gingrich's strategy benefited from the lack of a third party challenge. Ralph Nader is claiming that he'll bring out a large lefty vote which will also support Democratic congressional candidates. I think it's more likely that the sort of naive, non-strategic voters who come out to support Nader will vote for some oddball third-party candidate. I don't think Nader's argument on this issue is any more persuasive than his ego-driven Presidential bid. House Democrats probably can't convince him to step down, but they should go out of their way to avoid associating with him.

Second, Gingrich's "Contract with America" wasn't really all that radical. It focused heavily on internal reforms:
* FIRST, require all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress;
* SECOND, select a major, independent auditing firm to conduct a comprehensive audit of Congress for waste, fraud or abuse;
* THIRD, cut the number of House committees, and cut committee staff by one-third;
* FOURTH, limit the terms of all committee chairs;
* FIFTH, ban the casting of proxy votes in committee;
* SIXTH, require committee meetings to be open to the public;
* SEVENTH, require a three-fifths majority vote to pass a tax increase;
* EIGHTH, guarantee an honest accounting of our Federal Budget by implementing zero base-line budgeting
. Obviously the vast majority of Americans were not exercised about proxy voting rules. But this list of reforms suggests that Congressional Democrats were somehow cheating, or had arrogated too much power to themselves. Today's Congressional Democrats should take note: the specifics of reform programs are far less important than creating an impression that reform is sorely needed and that the current leadership won't bring it about.

The Contract with America's legislative program had some radical elements, both populist (term limits) and conservative (then-radical welfare reform, capital gains tax cuts, tort reform). As I recall, however, the point of this program was less the legislative particulars and more the sense imparted that something would change. Clearly that "something" in today's context should be the management of our presence in Iraq. I wonder if an incredibly vague "program" for Iraq couldn't serve a similar function for today's Democrats. Perhaps a much more specific economic program could be presented as well, to provide a decoy for Republicans to attack.

I've run out of time here: I have to get back to my dissertation. I'll post more on this topic later.

UPDATE: Off the Kuff has more.

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