This week on Political Wire's podcast, we spoke to longtime Democratic strategist Robert Shrum for a discussion of the issues that are on voters' minds this midterm season and how Democrats should go about campaigning for the elections.
Here are five takeaways:
1. Democrats shouldn't be playing defense on ObamaCare. Democrats have long been nervous about how ObamaCare would affect them in the 2014 midterm elections, but that anxiety reached new heights after Alex Sink (D) lost her special election bid in Florida's 13th congressional district to David Jolly (R). Democrats have been in disarray since, with many sticking to the "fix it, don't repeal it" message but others walking back their support of the law. That panic and those approaches are misguided, Shrum argued. The special election defeat does not mean Democrats are doomed in November, he said. Democrats just need to shift the conversation on ObamaCare: "We ought to take it seriously, not as an occasion to panic, not as an occasion to try to change the subject, but to try to engage on grounds that are favorable to Democrats." That means going on offense and actually touting the law's benefits. In general, he said: "You don’t win elections most of the time on the defensive. You win them on the offensive."
2. To go on offense, Democrats need to get specific about ObamaCare's benefits. In many voters' minds, ObamaCare is an abstraction that they haven't connected to the tangible impacts of the law. Even though a small majority of voters still disapprove of what they see as ObamaCare, polls also show that most major provisions of the law are very popular. "What you have to do is make this concrete and real in the lives of people," Shrum said. For example, he suggested that vulnerable Democrats air TV spots featuring people who have benefited from the law. He said he also sees another opening for Democrats to go on offense in the form of the 51 votes that congressional Republicans have taken to repeal the law, scale it back or delay key provisions. "Maybe in Louisiana you're not going to say 'ObamaCare' protects you...but you could say, 'My opponent...voted for a law 51 times...to let the insurance companies cancel your policy when you're sick.' And people will be motivated by that."
3. The economy will still be a major issue in November. Could it help Democrats? Maybe. Back in 1994, ahead of that year's Republican wave election, the economy hobbled President Bill Clinton. "I think the same thing is happening here [in 2014], and the economy will have a very big impact on the midterm elections," Shrum said. More than that, "how people perceive the economy will have a big impact," he argued. Even though the economy has long been out of the recession, the recovery has been gradual, and a lot of Americans still aren't reaping its benefits. Still, signs of hope have emerged in recent weeks with promising economic data on jobless claims and building permits. "It's possible that we get to September and people really feel differently about the economy than they do now," Shrum said.
4. The Ukraine crisis won't be a major issue on voters' minds unless things get a lot worse. Ukraine, Russia, and Crimea may be dominating the headlines right now. But it won't affect the results of the midterm elections that much, Shrum said, "unless we go from where we are into a genuine crisis." In general, foreign issues don't dominate the headlines (with the obvious exception of events such as 9/11 with major domestic implications), because what happens across the ocean isn't nearly as tangible to voters as what's happening with their pocketbooks or their health insurance.
5. President Obama can't do much more to respond to Russia's actions in Ukraine than imposing sanctions. Some GOP politicians have said that the president should respond to the Ukraine crisis more aggressively. So far, Obama has responded by deploying multiple rounds of sanctions against the Russians. These actions have not stopped Vladimir Putin from claiming Crimea for Russia. But to take more aggressive action carries with it great risks, Shrum warned. "We have too many issues we have to deal with the Russians on, including not just arms control but Iran, for example," he said. And should military action occur — unlikely, especially given that Obama has ruled it out — the results could be even more dangerous. For starters, Russia has a lot of nuclear warheads. "This is what held us back in Hungary. This is what held [President Johnson] back in Czechoslovakia....We cannot afford an armed confrontation with the Russians."
Listen to the whole thing: