Here’s a theory: House Democrats know their chances of recapturing the majority they just lost in two years aren’t good and have decided, “What the hell.”
Because of this, they show no desire or need to compromise with President Obama or Senate Republicans on a tax deal and are going to go out of power with their guns blazing.
These House Democrats are ignoring the reality that this was pretty much the best deal they could get, given that they just suffered the worst midterm House losses in 72 years. They are ignoring the fact that there are plenty of things in the package that would help a great deal of poor-, working-, and lower-middle-class families, not to mention that the package is a godsend for those with unemployment benefits that are about to expire. These Democrats prefer to focus on the fact that the package has goodies for the hated rich and business owners.
I actually don’t believe that House Democrats have given up on 2012, but rather that they are simply going through the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross stages of grief.
It’s safe to say they are working through some deep issues and haven’t made the turn into the new politics of 2012. For the longest time, it seemed that it was the president who was detached from reality, but it is now apparent that the White House folks have read, studied, and contemplated the midterm election returns and exit polls, a process House Democrats have yet to do.
Going into 2012, House Democrats will need a 25-seat net gain to retake the majority. It’s not hard to understand how they might reach the conclusion that they won’t make those gains. Looking at post-World War II presidential elections, no elected president seeking reelection has seen his party pick up more than 14 seats—this excludes non-elected presidents Harry Truman in 1948 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Even when presidents were reelected by landslides, they had minimal coattail effects on their House colleagues. Whether it was Dwight Eisenhower’s 15-point win in 1956, which resulted in a two-seat House gain; Richard Nixon’s 23-point victory in 1972, which gave Republicans 12 more House seats; or Ronald Reagan’s 18-point win in 1984, which provided only 14 additional seats, the gains just haven’t been there.
The fact that Republicans just picked up a whopping 63 House seats would suggest they have over-exposure heading into the 2012 election. But it seems to be much less than one might expect.
In 2006, when Democrats needed just 15 seats for a majority, there were 27 Republicans sitting in Democratic-leaning districts, according to the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index.
In 2012, Democrats will need to pick up 25 seats, but there will be only 21 Republicans sitting in Democratic-leaning districts. Many of the GOP’s 2010 gains were in districts that should have fallen to Republicans long ago, like Rep. John Spratt’s seat in northern South Carolina or Rep. John Tanner’s seat in western Tennessee.
The five House elections between the wave elections of 1994 and 2006 were marked by mild swings of only nine, five, one, seven, and three seats, respectively. But in the last three House cycles, consecutive swings of 30, 21, and 63 seats have made strategists on both sides feel like they were riding a bucking bronco.
If the bygone era of calm made Democrats’ task of picking up the 15 seats to take back the House look deceptively difficult at the outset of the 2006 cycle, today’s turbulence makes Democrats’ task of recouping 25 seats look deceptively easy.
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures’ Tim Storey, heading into 2011, Republicans will control the entire redistricting process in states totaling roughly 195 congressional districts versus Democrats running the show in states with 49 districts. The rest have split control, independent commissions or some other method.
Predictions that the GOP can pick up dozens of additional seats aren’t terribly realistic. After all, you can’t pick up a seat that you’ve already won, and Republicans just picked up 63.
But at a minimum, the GOP should be in a position to shore up many of their freshmen, maximizing their chances of retaining newly acquired seats.
One thing to watch is whether Republican mapmakers get too greedy and try to draw too many GOP-leaning districts, slicing each too thinly and putting those seats in jeopardy. We have seen both parties try to overreach in this fashion in the past.
With a few exceptions, the footprint of the House Democratic Caucus is a shadow of its former self and now made primarily of districts that they couldn’t lose if they tried.
In the new Cook Political Report ratings, only 15 Democratic House members are facing competitive races for 2012 with 28 more in “watch” situations.
Having lost independent voters by 18 points and ‘65 and older’ voters by 21 points, their support is reduced down pretty much to the base.
If they decide not to seek the support of independents and moderates, and small town and rural America, then they can stay cohesive and harmonious and won’t have to worry about gavels or the business of governing.
The shift by Obama in recent weeks suggests he has figured out the new political reality. One wonders how long it will take House Democrats, and perhaps Senate Democrats, to figure that out as well.
This article appears in the Dec. 14, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.