Playing in Traffic Is Not Safe Politics

Are Democrats beginning to rationalize that losing the Senate majority wouldn’t be as bad as some fear?

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 16: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (C), speaks to the media while flanked by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-CO) (L) and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), after attending the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol July 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. Democrats gathered a the luncheon to discuss their agenda.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
July 7, 2014, 6:33 p.m.

While I have nev­er seen any­one lit­er­ally thrown un­der a bus, I would ima­gine it is quite a grisly sight. In polit­ics, we oc­ca­sion­ally see someone throw an in­di­vidu­al or a group on their own team un­der one. That is not a pretty sight either.

Early this year, we saw Sen­ate Demo­crats throw their House brethren un­der the pro­ver­bi­al bus with a Jan. 29 story in Politico head­lined, “Demo­crats: Cede the House to Save the Sen­ate.” It noted that Demo­crats’ hold on their ma­jor­ity in the up­per cham­ber was tenu­ous, while over on the House side, the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee was rais­ing money hand over fist des­pite hav­ing little chance of re­claim­ing the ma­jor­ity House Demo­crats lost in 2010. It didn’t take a rock­et sci­ent­ist to fig­ure out that Sen­ate Demo­crats were try­ing to re­dir­ect fun­drais­ing from what they saw as a lost cause on one side of the Cap­it­ol to what they saw as a much more im­port­ant one on their side.

On one level, it was pretty ob­vi­ous that the odds were ex­ceed­ingly long for House Demo­crats and more like 50-50 — give or take 10 points — on the Sen­ate side. But these kinds of stor­ies are usu­ally played out in the weeks or fi­nal months be­fore an elec­tion, not in the first month of the elec­tion year. To me, it was both un­der­stand­able and un­seemly, and cer­tainly not very subtle. I could only won­der just how angry House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi was with the story, par­tic­u­larly giv­en that I had heard her de­liv­er a very spir­ited de­fense of Demo­crats’ House chances just a few weeks earli­er. But as the old say­ing goes, “Polit­ics ain’t bean­bag.”

We saw it again this past week with The Wash­ing­ton Post’s in­im­it­able Dana Mil­bank writ­ing a column Ju­ly 4 sug­gest­ing that per­haps the Obama pres­id­ency might be­ne­fit from Demo­crats los­ing their Sen­ate ma­jor­ity. The crunch­ing sound you heard was the bones of Sen­ate Demo­crats un­der a bus, a pretty fair in­dic­a­tion that someone in or close to the White House was be­gin­ning to ra­tion­al­ize why such an out­come might not be as bad a thing as some might think — all lo­gic to the con­trary.

Mil­bank ar­gues, “The pre­vail­ing view is that a Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate would only com­pound [Pres­id­ent] Obama’s woes by bot­tling up con­firm­a­tions, doub­ling the num­ber of in­vest­ig­a­tions, and chip­ping away at Obama­care and oth­er le­gis­lat­ive achieve­ments.”

Now here comes the bus. Mil­bank con­tin­ues, “Yet there’s a chance that hav­ing an all-Re­pub­lic­an Con­gress would help Obama — and even some White House of­fi­cials have wondered privately wheth­er a uni­fied Re­pub­lic­an Con­gress would be bet­ter than the cur­rent en­vir­on­ment. Re­pub­lic­ans, without Harry Re­id to blame, would own Con­gress — a body that in­spires a high level of con­fid­ence in just 7 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans, ac­cord­ing to a Gal­lup sur­vey last month find­ing Con­gress at a new low and at the bot­tom of all in­sti­tu­tions tested.” Crunch.

All of this re­minds me of a lunch con­ver­sa­tion with a seni­or White House ad­viser just a few weeks be­fore the Demo­crats’ dis­astrous 2010 midterms, when they lost their House ma­jor­ity and saw their Sen­ate edge cut by more than half, los­ing six seats. The ad­viser ap­peared genu­inely dis­in­ter­ested in the midterm elec­tion, seem­ing to only want to talk about which Re­pub­lic­ans might ac­tu­ally jump in­to the 2012 con­test.

To be sure, Obama is run­ning around the coun­try do­ing fun­draisers for the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, as he does for oth­er party en­tit­ies. But a lot of the good­will built up by do­ing sev­en-di­git fun­drais­ing events is un­done by those in and close to the White House, whose loy­alty seems to be only to The Man and not the best in­terests of the party. Sure, if Re­pub­lic­ans “own” Con­gress, then the Obama White House will have a bet­ter angle of at­tack, but — and you can call me old-fash­ioned — it is nev­er a good thing to lose a Sen­ate or House ma­jor­ity.

That is not to say that Re­pub­lic­ans shouldn’t worry about the pos­sib­il­ity that if they hold the House (highly likely) and win a ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate, that some of the more exot­ic GOP mem­bers would be em­boldened to do things that could be dis­astrous for their party. That should be a le­git­im­ate con­cern.

But for Obama, while yes, he would be re­cor­ded as the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent, he would also be re­membered for hav­ing lost a House ma­jor­ity in his first-term midterm elec­tion and the Sen­ate in his second term — a fairly in­aus­pi­cious re­cord, with the Af­ford­able Care Act cred­ited as hav­ing as­sisted in the play.

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