Potential Democratic responses to Republican gains in Congress

Despite the fact that not a single vote has been counted, the media and political analysts have already conceded a landslide victory to the Republicans in the November election.  The reality of 2010 is that Congressional Democrats will move from dominance to either parity or minority status depending on the outcome of the elections. 

For much of the past two years, Dems have held a veto-proof majority.  But, they rarely exhibited the kind of lock-step discipline it takes to act decisively.  On the other hand, the Republicans have spoken with a single voice and delivered one simple message – “no.” As a result, they have been able to resuscitate their conservative base and regain many of the Independents who had abandoned them in 2008.

So how should Obama and the Democrats cope with their reduced numbers in Congress?  Peter Baker of the New York Times suggests the Democrats take a page out of Bill Clinton’s workbook.  “The reality of presidential politics is that it helps to have an enemy,” Baker wrote in the Sunday Times, pointing to Bill Clinton and Harry Truman who took this strategy to an art form. 

Clinton had the Newt Gingrich Congress to contend with after the ’94 elections.  The typical off-year downturn in the majority party was enhanced by the Contract with America and resulted in big losses for Democrats.  Clinton, acknowledged by most politicians as a brilliant political strategist, turned Gingrich into the bogeyman for the American middle class.  By the end of the struggle, Clinton remained very popular (despite Monica Lewinsky et. al.), while Newt had to turn tail and head back to Georgia.

Truman made the “do-nothing” Congress the enemy of progress, and made himself into an American hero.  Obama may well be testing those waters with his recent attacks on John Boehner, the Republican who is likely to be elected Speaker of the House if his party gains a majority.  If this negative approach gains traction, then the President may end up better positioned for re-election in 2012. 

If all of the dire predictions of Republican gains don’t quite pan out in November, the Democrats could claim a pyrrhic victory similar to the one claimed by Pat Buchanan in the 1994 New Hampshire primary.  Buchanan’s “win” was actually a third place finish, but it was much better than the predictions.   As a result, Buchanan extended the life of his campaign and established himself as an icon of right-wing thinking. 

Democrats could similarly make such a claim if the Republicans fail to capture one or both houses of Congress in November.  An assertion of victory would force the Republicans into a defensive mode and give the President and the Democrats greater leverage with the media and the general public. 

But, the D’s could take the high road and seek to cooperate with the newly empowered Republicans for the good of the nation.  This statesman-like approach would contrast sharply with the Republicans strategy of letting the Democrats govern while they sit back and complain about the process. 

Then again, it’s always possible that Democrats will choose to emulate the Republicans’ “just say no” policy and keep the political process in gridlock for another two years.  That approach seems to have worked well for the Republicans, even if the country has suffered for it.