All politics is national

Democrats are fretting over midterm elections. But if they start fighting back -- and drawing key distinctions with Republicans -- now, they'll fare much better in November.

Robert Shrum

Whenever you hear a party say our candidates will do fine because midterm elections are just a series of local contests, you know there’s trouble. And we’ve been hearing that from too many Democrats.

All politics now is national. The Republican strategy for 2010 has been both conscious and clear for months. The GOP wants Obama to fail and the economy to fail. At every turn they are determined to obstruct. This reached the point a week ago where seven Republicans in the Senate, including John McCain, voted against a bill they had cosponsored -- simply because Obama had endorsed it.

The President may speak and even seek bipartisanship, but he’ll be met with a closed fist. So Democrats in Congress need a strategy of their own that goes beyond "every man for himself" -- or every woman, in the case of Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. They can’t be on the defensive; they can’t save themselves by fleeing their president or their principles. They have to draw clear dividing lines on their own terms with the Republican opposition. Put a series of big issues to a vote, giving the other side its chances to cooperate, or manifest its true character.

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On the day when the Democrats lost their supposedly filibuster-proof Senate, and official figures showed an unexpectedly high number of new unemployment claimants, the still-majority party actually fought back. They issued a series of jobs proposals and announced that they intend to vote on them in the Senate next week. If the Republicans filibuster in lock-step, Democrats should attack that as a "no" vote on jobs, pure and simple. And maybe the newly minted lawmaker from Massachusetts, who claims that he’s a "Scott Brown Republican," will realize that if he becomes a party-line vote for Mitch McConnell, he won’t be reelected in 2012. He just might decide not to filibuster jobs.

Democrats should also press hard on financial reform. The Wall Street Journal reports that Republicans are telling the paper’s most important readers, who happen to work on Wall Street, that the GOP will stand with them to oppose fees to repay the bailout along with caps on boundless executive pay and rules against reckless behavior. We could pretty much guess, but now we know for sure, why we saw the stark spectacle of sour-faced Republicans sitting on their hands when the president talked about financial reform in his State of the Union. Republicans now deserve the opportunity to vote early and often. Let the phony populists stand up for the plutocrats -- again and again.

Maybe the House leadership should even schedule a roll call on Republican Representative Paul Ryan’s alternative budget, which would privatize and slash Social Security and turn Medicare into vouchers. (Vouchers increasingly constitute the whole Republican program -- vouchers for seniors, vouchers for schools, pretty soon it’ll be vouchers for police and fire protection, too.) Bring on the roll calls.

And at every point hit back at the smears. It was refreshing to see White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs call the "moderate" Senator Susan Collins to account for her demagogic assertion that intelligence officials were not consulted about the interrogation of the Christmas Day underpants bomber. In fact, as Gibbs pointed out, they were right there in the situation room the whole time. It’s appalling, and even dangerous, to see Republicans suggest, as Collins did, that the president of the United States has a "blind spot -- on the War on Terrorism." And by the way, Collins also seemed to forget that the FBI is in the intelligence business when it comes to domestic terrorism.

Then there’s Collins’ colleague from Maine, who delayed action on health reform for months while she professed to be negotiating a bipartisan bill. She finally voted for it in committee, and then opposed the final version on the Senate floor, insisting on more delay. She may have fooled Baucus and Reid once, but they shouldn’t fall for this make-nice routine again. No more Olympia Snowe–Jobs.

Addressing the needs of 15 million people without work is more important than working with someone like Snowe, and so are the needs of more than 30 million people who will be denied health care if Congress doesn’t finish the job. Pass the bill. Pass the bill along with a filibuster-proof reconciliation measure that incorporates the fixes House and Senate Democrats were shaping just before the post-Massachusetts panic. Democrats have the chance here to make history -- to prove that they can govern and that they understand that holding office has a purpose beyond having your name on the door.

This is also smart politics. A PPP poll shows that by itself the act of passing the bill cuts independent support for Republicans by six points. And that’s before the law goes into effect and people figure out that there are no death-panels, rationing schemes, or cuts in Medicare benefits. If the majority party can’t figure out both the moral imperative and the electoral calculus of health care, then it doesn't deserve to be in the majority.

The midterms won’t be easy. Much will depend on where the job numbers are, not just those announced Friday morning, but the ones announced next July and September. But the best hope is to stand up and "fight for people," as the president put it -- and make sure that people know which party is on their side. If Democrats head for the hills, they’ll find the only thing waiting for them there is involuntary retirement. If they hold their ground and draw the dividing lines, a lot more congressional Democrats will be around when the economic recovery is in full force and Barack Obama leads his party to victory in 2012.

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