The Washington Times

Beginning a little less than a year ago, Democrats set expectations for today’s elections at levels ranging from high to highest: They were going to win back control of the House for the first time since 1995 and the Senate as well. The reasons for this coming victory were an increasingly unpopular war undermining the Republicans’ key advantage on national security issues; a Republican-controlled Congress that, in their telling, was a slough of corruption and complacency; and the alternative program playing to their own strengths on domestic policy they were going to offer voters.    

About a year later, where are we? Well, we have very tough going in Iraq, including the possible breakdown of the political process there. The Jack Abramoff scandal in Congress found an even-better and timely successor in the sex scandal of former Rep. Mark Foley and possible GOP leadership efforts to protect him. And the Democrats have “nationalized” the election around the person of George W. Bush, Republican candidates’ ties to whom have been the mainstay of the Democratic offensive.     

In 1998, House Speaker Newt Gingrich was confident, based on the history of electoral performance in the midterm of a second presidential term, that the GOP would pick up seats. When, instead, Republicans lost five seats while still retaining control, Mr. Gingrich lost his grip on the speakership. If, in 2006, Republicans lose 14 seats, thus retaining control of the House by a single seat, there will be no leadership crisis on the GOP side, but rather a recriminations crisis on the Democratic side. That’s a product of the expectations Democrats have created.   

This election has been a rough one for Tip O’Neill’s observation that “all politics is local.” Most observers seem persuaded that all politics is national, at least in this election: It’s all about the
Iraq war and President Bush. I think there are two points that need to be made in defense of Mr. O’Neill’s remark: First of all, at least since the Gingrich days, Democrats have made a habit of organizing campaigns around the image of a leading Republican villain. Mr. Gingrich occupied that position through 2000, which is to say, past the life of his speakership. Mr. Bush is, in this sense, next in line. That’s not to say that the Democratic strategy won’t work this time. But if it does, it won’t be because Democrats have adopted a new battle plan of “nationalization” around an unpopular figure. That’s been the plan every time. It will be because of the greater vulnerability that association with Mr. Bush creates this time around. 

Second, I think people misunderstand Mr. O’Neill’s remark to suggest that politics is no more than helping people collect their Social Security benefits and cutting the ribbon at the new public library. That misses the point. Of course issues like war and peace, taxes and health care matter. But they form the backdrop for a contest between two people who are flesh and blood. Incumbents and contenders are, generally speaking, people who know the people of their districts personally. The advantage of incumbency comes not only from districts gerrymandered to favor one party nor from the way the spotlight shines locally upon a sitting member of Congress, but also from the fact that people have elected incumbents at least once before, which is to say, judged them favorably. They would need good reason to change their minds.     

No, the great missing link in the supposed “nationalization” of this election, in contrast to 1994, say, is this: We know what (and whom) Democrats are running against, but what are they running for? Democrats have allowed their perception of Republican weakness as a result of Iraq and the deficiencies of GOP congressional control to excuse them from spelling out a national platform with anything like the specificity of the Contract with America. That may be smart, as a lot of Democratic candidates hoping to succeed in Republican-held seats are running rather conservative themselves. But nationalization, it isn’t.    

The reason to think Democrats will exceed the expectations they have created for this year is that voters will rebel against the Republican in numbers beyond what polls currently suggest. The result would be a national wave driving a 35-40 seat gain in the House and, say, a 51-49 Democratic Senate. I don’t see that wave, as indeed I failed to see a 2004 wave that was supposed to sweep John Kerry in. It’s the same Kool-Aid.     

The reason to think Republicans will do better than expectations is that they tend to close well, for reasons having to do with the local strength of incumbents and party apparatus and money. This seems to be happening.

Although I have a very good record predicting presidential outcomes (the data are better) and a decent record on Senate outcomes (same reason), I have a tendency to overpredict Republican performance in the House. This year, I think I’ll just roll the dice for the sake of being contrary and say Democrats will win 14 seats net, thereby coming up one short. This is not, in truth, at the midrange of probability as I figure it, but the information available is poor and the payoff if you hit is high, so why not? As for the Senate, 52-48 Republican.