This column has focused, some would say dwelled, for several months on problems congressional Democrats face as the 2010 midterm elections approach.
To be sure, the odds are very high that the party will fare worse than the average for post-World War II, first-term, midterm elections, where the majority party typically loses 16 House seats and sees a wash in the Senate.
Having heard that ground covered so often over the last few months, several Democrats have asked what they should do to prevent those losses, while Republicans have asked what they could do to keep from blowing it.
Democrats have become no less obsessed this year over health care than Captain Ahab was with Moby Dick. The best advice for Democrats would be to do whatever you are going to do on health care, get it done and then shift as quickly as possible to the economy and jobs, the things most voters are actually obsessing over.
For Republicans, the remaining challenges are a lack of a positive message and a tendency to alienate swing voters.
While most economists believe the recession is over, more Americans believe it is not. Politically speaking, the recession isn't over until voters, not economists, say it's over.
Voters see the economy as jobs and disposable income. Every day spent on health care, climate change or virtually anything not directly and immediately involved in the economy and job creation is a minute spent ignoring what voters think really matters. Health care and climate change are important and worthy objectives, and it is true that no time is easy to take on these challenges. But this is probably the worst time in decades to try. Get health care out of the way, push climate change back and get onto jobs.
A second big stimulus package would just get bogged down and, once passed, what then? Instead, Democrats should come up with a series of things that would boost the economy, create jobs and appeal to Main and Maple streets, to average people, people who have lost jobs or hours or are in fear of losing ground. They already see themselves as picking up the tab for bailouts of the big boys and girls.
After extending unemployment and COBRA health insurance benefits, the tax credit for homebuyers ought to be extended and expanded. Given that 15 jobs are created for every house built, this one should be a no-brainer. The original plan, which expires next month, was much too modest. Expand its availability to more would-be home buyers.
Though most liberals might gag at this next suggestion -- by an economic adviser to former President George W. Bush -- maybe they should listen.
Former Federal Reserve Gov. Lawrence Lindsey proposed in January in the Wall Street Journal that "the government could essentially cut the payroll tax in half, taking 3 points off the rate for both the employer and the employee. This would put $1,500 into the pocket of a typical worker making $50,000, with a similar amount going to his or her employer. It would provide a powerful stimulus to the spending stream, as well as a significant, 6-percentage-point reduction in the tax burden of employment for people making less than $100,000. The effects would be immediate."
Most Americans believe average people and small businesses have gotten little relief; a payroll tax cut would address that problem in a way Republicans could hardly argue with. In the long haul, it might be lousy public policy, but in the short term we're all dead, and this economy needs to get turned around and people put back to work. If small business really is the engine of job growth, a payroll tax cut can help.
For Blue Dogs who object that these measures would only exacerbate the deficit, paying for stimulus measures eliminates any positive, stimulative impact. But the best way to increase federal revenues and start cutting the deficit is to get the recession over and get people back to work.
For Republicans -- putting aside their lack of a clear leader, which will be the case until the presidential nomination fight narrows -- the remaining challenges are a lack of a positive message and a tendency to alienate swing voters who don't see eye-to-eye with the increasingly conservative economic and social agenda the party has adopted in recent years.
Conservatives will vote next year because many of them loathe President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders. Though independents vote in lower numbers in midterm elections than presidential elections, they were still enough that their margin in 2006 cost the GOP control of Congress.
Part of the genius of the 1994 GOP "Contract with America" was its message that resonated with the independent voters and others who voted for Ross Perot in 1992. It was less ideological and more outsider. That direction certainly didn't cost the GOP any conservative support in 1994; it simply brought less ideological voters who had grown disgruntled with President Bill Clinton and Democratic majorities.
Until the Republican Party practices more addition than subtraction, they will continue to have problems, notwithstanding Democratic efforts to lose their own elections. The question is whether Republicans have been in the wilderness long enough to learn that lesson.
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