In today's hurry-up world, we're often told, "Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable." A more forgiving notion is, "Better late than never." And President Obama and congressional Democrats must hope that the attention they're finally paying to the econ-omy will help put voters in a forgiving mood by November.
Democrats' prospects continue to worsen. GOP former Sen. Dan Coats's announcement that he will challenge Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., means that Republicans now have at least a mathematical possibility of recapturing the Senate in November. Before the 10-year Senate veteran jumped into the fray, Republicans were fielding first- or second-tier challengers in only nine states and a long shot in a 10th, against Wisconsin's Russell Feingold. Now Republicans are prohibitive favorites to win the open-seat races in Delaware and North Dakota; slight favorites for the Illinois open seat; no worse than an even-money bet in their challenges to Michael Bennet of Colorado, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Harry Reid of Nevada, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania; and in a credible position against Bayh and against Barbara Boxer of California. They also have some chance of picking off Connecticut's open seat. Meanwhile, Republicans are not underdogs in any of their fights to retain the 18 Senate seats they've got on the line.
The Republican Party is the one whose image is improving.
At this point in 2006, five Republican seats were rated as toss-ups. The GOP went on to not only lose four of those five seats but also lose that of Montana's Conrad Burns, rated as leaning Republican at the end of January, and Virginia's George Allen, which at this stage was in the solid-Republican column.
As for Democrats, the $30 billion small-business loan program, $8 billion high-speed rail project, and other economic revitalization proposals unveiled over the past 10 days are exactly what the Obama administration needed to be pushing -- last August. After the July figures showed the unemployment rate still at 9 percent, the White House should have realized it was having a "Houston, we have a problem" moment. Instead, the Obama team has taken until now to begin firing its backup engines.
So can Democrats undo the damage that they did to their party by seeming to shove the nation's economic problems onto a back burner after checking the stimulus box last winter? Would devoting nine months to investing as much energy, attention, and political capital into the economy as they put into overhauling health care last year repair the damage? Obama needs to find out.
What else can Democrats do? First, lower the profile of their congressional leaders. The face of the Democratic Congress should be the locale's House member and senators, not Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Harry Reid. The fact that Pelosi had a 21 percent positive, 44 percent negative rating and Reid had a 13 percent positive, 32 percent negative rating in early-January NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls is a tip-off that they should step away from the cameras.
Second, Democrats need to grasp that their brand is quickly losing its edge over the GOP's. In two NBC/Wall Street Journal polls taken by Peter Hart and Bill McInturff in January, 38 and 39 percent of Americans viewed the Democratic Party positively, whereas 38 and 41 percent had a negative impression. A year ago, the same poll gave Democrats a positive rating of 49 and a negative rating of just 31. In the recent surveys, the Republican Party had positive ratings of 30 and 32, negative ratings of 38 and 42 percent. A year ago, the GOP had a positive rating of 26 and a negative rating of 47 percent. The Republican Party is the one whose image is improving.
Third, Democrats need to remember that although the Vietnam War ended 35 years ago, the weak-on-defense monkey is still on their backs. And, fairly or not, talk of closing Guantanamo and reading terrorist suspects their Miranda rights introduces a whole new generation of voters to security concerns.
Twenty years ago, the late Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala., accused his earnest challenger, Bill Cabaniss, a businessman from the wealthy Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, of being "one of them silk-stocking boys. A part of the Grey Poupon crowd. He's a Mercedes-driving, polo-playing, Jacuzzi-soaking, Gucci-wearing, Perrier-sipping, debutante-dancing, ritzy-rich Republican." Heflin went on to crush Cabaniss like an overripe chardonnay grape, 61 percent to 39 percent. Since then, deliberately or not, Democrats have shed their working-class image. They are increasingly viewed as an elitist, noblesse oblige party that is out of touch with working people -- and people who wish they were working. As Heflin could have told fellow Democrats, there aren't enough hoity-toity voters to keep them in power long.
This article appears in the February 6, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.