It’s rarely hard to predict how House Democrats plan to approach elections. Even two years before voters make their biennial decisions, one can assume that left-leaning lawmakers will accuse their GOP opponents of raiding Medicare, threatening Social Security, and generally favoring their ideological agenda at the little guy’s expense. While imperfect, the strategy does have a decent decades-long record of success.
But for the next election, Democrats might be adding a new wrinkle. Inspired by the House GOP’s twin parliamentary implosions—the failed “Plan B” vote that divided the party during fiscal-cliff negotiations and the much-criticized deferral of a superstorm Sandy relief bill—House Democrats have begun to make the case to voters that the chamber’s Republicans are, essentially, incompetent. The House GOP’s internal strife, they say, has left it incapable of carrying out even the basic functions of government.
“While President Obama, Vice President [Joe] Biden, Senate and House Democrats, and even Senate Republicans were working to get to yes, the tea party Republicans seemed insistent on finding a way to no,” Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a New Year’s Day statement released shortly after a majority of House Republicans opposed the final fiscal-cliff deal. “The American people are fed up with this Tea Party Congress of Chronic Chaos that is unable to govern and uncommitted to the middle class.”
The strategic shift has important implications for GOP members as they prepare for the new congressional session. Looming battles over the debt ceiling and the defense sequester might each spark internal dissent in the House Republican Conference. And, like the cliff, the consequences of inaction could have dire national implications—torpedoing the economy or gutting the defense budget. Add the ongoing conservative angst pointed at House Speaker John Boehner, and the Democrats’ message might seem more prescient by the month. “There’s no question that the GOP House has given our side every reason to assume that the chaos is bound to continue,” says Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic strategist.
The gambit rests on the premise that voters can be persuaded to pin their disgust with Washington on House Republicans. There’s no doubting that people despise Congress—one poll released last week said it is less popular than colonoscopies and cockroaches. But their hatred is spread evenly, or at least close to it, among all four of the legislative conferences. In other words, voters want to throw all the bums out.
Still, the latest crisis might shore up the Democratic argument. According to a survey released this week by the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of American adults disapprove of how Republican leaders handled the tax negotiations. That percentage no doubt includes rank-and-file conservatives angry about the tax increases, but the poll reported that independents viewed the GOP leadership even more unfavorably: 69 percent of them disapproved. Meanwhile, a plurality, 48 percent, of adults approved of Obama’s role in the negotiations. In this case, voters didn’t find all parties equally culpable.
That may not, however, be reason enough for confidence in the Democrats’ plan. After the House leadership in the last Congress waged fights over a government shutdown and the debt ceiling, Democrats made only a dent in the GOP majority, even as their president won a commanding reelection. That’s because demography and a round of unfavorable redistricting may put a ceiling on their House potential. (See “Stairway to Nowhere,” p. 10.) And midterms, which are rarely kind to the president’s party, could make the GOP’s 17-seat advantage even more imposing.
Focusing on the sausage-making, instead of the sausage itself, isn’t a tried-and-true political strategy. The GOP griped about the legislative process after the painstaking “Obamacare” negotiations (the health reform law was passed by reconciliation), but the measure was also deeply unpopular in its own right. The last time process mattered was 1996, after then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s infamous suggestion that his ride in the back of Air Force One caused the government shutdown.
Accordingly, House Republicans are laughing off the Democrats’ tactic, suggesting it will be forgotten by November 2014. “It’s always entertaining when Steve Israel comes up with the next thing that’s going to win them back the majority,” says Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “First it was Medicare, and that failed. His track record speaks for itself. I don’t see a whole lot of meat on that bone.”
Democrats also risk passing up arguments that resonate directly with voters. The public might dislike Congress, but frustration with Washington won’t raise the same alarm that the threat of a cut to Social Security would. One is rooted in voters’ sense of civics, the other in their bottom line. That gap is partly why Democrats vow to connect the GOP dysfunction with a threat to average people’s well-being. “It’s not just inside-the-Beltway navel-gazing,” said Jesse Ferguson, a DCCC spokesman. “It’s voter frustration with Republican dysfunction that has real consequences for the middle class.”
If voters see that connection, House Democrats might have found their winning formula for 2014. If not, don’t be shocked if they return to a familiar playbook.
This article appears in the January 12, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as Competence Game.