The Midterms: A Preliminary Game Plan

The Obama Administration needs to start preparing the ground for the November midterms. Here’s what it should do.

EJ Dionne has a typically smart piece at TNR about how the Democrats can avoid disaster in November’s midterms.  They will obviously lose some seats, but this doesn’t need to be a repeat of 1994.Richard Cohen, though, is worried that Obama is off his game, which bodes very badly for the midterms. 

It seems to me that while the administration has a lot of genuine achievements, it has created a huge political problem for itself by going out of its way to alienate its strongest supporters.  Theoretically, helath care reform will bring many back to the fold, but the inevitable compromises of the dysfunctional Senate have, if anything, dampened Democratic energy.

Usually, Presidents handle this problem by taking executive actions to shore up the base, but Rahm Emanuel seems to know only one play: tell liberals to STFU.  That might work sometimes, but not in a midterm.

What to do now?

1)      Obama should take some high-profile measures regarding Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  He should publicly refuse to dismiss talented linguists who are gay, for example, on national security grounds.  He has the authority to do this.

2)      If and when there is a SCOTUS retirement, he should appoint someone who will unify the base and drive the Reps crazy while appealing to the center.  My own preferred option is Kathleen Sullivan, the former Dean of Stanford Law School, one of the leading constitutional scholars in the country, and openly gay.

3)      Strong moves on appellate judges.  No backing off.  Lots of action regarding up or down votes.  This will help build momentum for filibuster reform at the beginning of the 2011 session.

4)      Putting reimportation into the 2010 reconciliation bill, and other goodies.

5)      The head of Larry Summers on a platter; maybe replace him with Elizabeth Warren.

6)      STRONG pushes on very tough financial regulation, forcing the Republicans to defend the bankers.  The GOP has already said that it will oppose any unified Consumer Protection Agency.  Let them.

This isn’t hard.  It makes for good policy and good politics.  Whether Rahm understands that is a totally different question.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

11 thoughts on “The Midterms: A Preliminary Game Plan”

  1. It is a mark of the true partisan that, when faced with the prospect that his preferred party faces tough electoral odds, reflexively suggests that tacking further away from the center to "energize the base" is the right strategy.

    Now, midterms are indeed about turnout and having an energized base does help with turnout, but the problem with this strategy is that there are relatively few moves that "energize our base" that don't simultaneously "energize their base." High profile moves on gay rights for example will certainly bring more liberal voters to the polls. But they will also bring more conservative voters to the polls. Whether net-net its a winning strategy is highly uncertain. If anything you don;t want to provoke a base fight when your guys are the status quo guys. Your issue #1 is likely a winner with the center to the degree that the center gives a shit, which seems highly unlikely. Your #2 may or may not be a winner with the center but will almost certainly engineer big Republican turnout. In any event #1 and #2 will be very popular with liberals and very unpopular with conservatives. Again, a wash at best for the Democrats.

    Nobody outside of Washington will notice / care about #3, #4 and #5.

    The only clear winner on your list would seem to be #6, which is highly appealing to liberals but also, given broad public disgust at the financial services industry, also likely to highly popular among populist conservatives. Thus #6 is a wedge issue with the potential to splinter Republicans. That seems like a winning strategy for the Democrats.

    Aside from that, if Obamma et. al. can figure out a way to craft jobs-producing legislation (that doesn;t add to the deficit) that is credible with the public, they will likely do well. If not, count on Republicans ending up with 46-48 Senate seats and 10-20 seats shy of a House majority.

    Liberals should face up to reality – the Obamma years are so far looking to be shockingly like the Clinton years. The good news for Democrats is that the Clinton years minus the tawdry sex scandals near the end equal a successful presidency that goes down as a win in the history books. The bad news is – a liberal utopia it ain't.

  2. [ items 1 through 6 ]

    Might as well wish for a pony, too —

    Rahm ain't gonna give you one of those, either.

  3. Of your list, precisely none will become Obama policy. It's just not the way he rolls. He believes in striking deals with power, not confronting it. It's not always the wrong strategy, or morally wrong or anything like that, but it's a sure loser for 2010.

    I basically believe Americans no longer are willing or able to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a constitutional democracy, so attempts to govern in the traditional manner will fail dismally. People want no taxes, lots of benefits, and a balanced budget. Also wars without casualties that don't cost money which we win. The side able to make the most delusional promises will always have the advantage.

  4. Quite honestly, sd is probably right about #1. That (repeal) is something that should probably wait until year three, excepting the linguists. #2 is no sweat, and worth it to make the cons froth about the gay, but I dunno when that's going to come about. Agree with #3. No matter what you do, the R's are going to gin up every judge so just appoint who you like, as long as they are untouched by scandal.

    #4 will not hurt Obama with anybody but the drug companies. Do it. With #5, it would be frankly better to dump Geithner. Tracking this for over a year now, it sure seems like he's more of a problem than a solution, and he isn't a good team player. Well, actually, he is a good team player – for the Fed, not the WH. Agreed with #6.

    The Obama years look shockingly like the Clinton years because of all the damn Clintonites, the very source of my disappointment, and the reason I voted against Hillary. I have to agree with Hanes and JMG as well on that situation. And unfortunately, this is not going to be a good decade for Clintonian types.

    I dunno who is in charge of this (political) outfit, but they oughta fire him.

    max

    ['Where is Grant & Sherman?']

  5. SD: "But they will also bring more conservative voters to the polls. Whether net-net its a winning strategy is highly uncertain. "

    I'd assume that the right will be highly energized; running a campaign on the idea of not p*ssing them off is doomed to failure.

  6. What Barry said. Surely the right-wing base is already fired up with all this tea party business. No point worrying about that when their fired-up-ness has basically nothing to do with whether Obama actually does anything liberal. Obama had better do some things to fire up the liberal base. Speaking as a member of that base, if Obama were to do all six of those suggested things, my support for him would become loud and almost unkillable.

  7. I don't think Jonathan's suggestions go to the core of what's upsetting people which is the lousy job market (and maybe the lousy real estate market). It's true that the causes of these circumstances lie with Republican policies and politicians over the previous 8 years; that Obama has done a decent if not perfect job addressing them given the level of opposition he's still getting from the Republicans whose policies are actually responsible; and that if McCain had been elected we'd now be in a second Great Depression. But these are relatively hard for people to perceive.

    The best thing the administration could do would be to pump a lot more stimulus into the economy this spring. As soon as health care is passed they ought to get going on a jobs bill. Obama has a lot on his plate and he is a long-term strategist, which is good. But it's still the economy, stupid.

  8. Larry, the trick is that the economic policy of the Bush administration was to

    s*ck the rich and f*ck the rest; the Obama administration has made only minor changes in it.

    True, a McCain administration would have made it worse, but

    (a) when things have gotten bad, a 'he'd have made it worse' campaign strategy is weak tea indeed;

    (b) the Obama administration has repeatedly forgone the opportunity to make actual change.

    Their policy towards Wall St is still one of massive support and

    teeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeny tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiny reforms (if that).

    The end result is that Obama many of the liabilities of a GOP president *and*

    many of the liabilities of a Democratic president.

    Meanwhile, on the right, a huge chunk are pissed off that a Democrat is president

    (not just opposing – the standard GOP belief is that the presidency is rightfully

    a GOP office, and that Democrats can't rightfully hold it);

    a huge chunk are p*ssed off that a n*gger is president,

    a huge chunk are p*ssed off that Evul Librulz will trash us (and yes, those

    wh*resons and -daughters cheerfully voted for Bush and McCain);

    a huge chunk are mad that things s*ck for them;

    a huge chunk are mad that things s*ck for them while Wall St gets trillions.

    The elite MSM, of course, after largely carrying Bush's water, will cheerfully

    f*ck Obama over, because, it's clear by now, *that's what they do*.

    The elite money guys, while pulling down literal tons of money from Obama,

    and staffing Obama's administration, will still stick a knife in any Democratic

    president's back, because the Republicans will always offer a better deal;

    their goal will be to have had the Democrats do all the clean-up, and then to

    stick in a GOP government after a one-term 'janitorial' administration.

    a huge chu

  9. Look, I understand the anger. I agree with some of your complaints, but not all of them… maybe not even most of them. Regardless, the question is how to make the situation better for people both in reality and in political reality, and how to do that quickly. The fact that rich people, racists, homophobes, the mainstream media, teabaggers, religious nutjobs, warmongers, assorted federal welfare recipients in the South and West (and Alaska) who for psychological reasons prefer to think they are doughty individualists, et al., want to do all sorts of stupid things: well, I agree we should be working towards reducing the numbers of people who think this way, their influence, etc. But still the question is what, operationally, we can do to make things better.

    Here's my proposal: more stimulus spending to produce more jobs more quickly.

  10. "Rahm Emanuel seems to know only one play: tell liberals to STFU. That might work sometimes, but not in a midterm."

    Are you kidding? To Rahm, telling liberals to STFU *always* works, because it keeps the financial interests aligned with his boss, whether it's Bill Clinton or Barack Obama (that's why Obama/Rahm cut a deal with Big Pharma – kill drug re-importation, and they sit on their hands for a cycle or two… well, okay, they cut really lame ads in support of an unpopular bill for "endangered" incumbents; I'm not sure if that's better or worse).

    If you think Rahm would shy away from telling liberals to STFU for fear that it would depress the base and cost Democrats in the House/Senate some seats, I'm not sure you've been watching the same channel as some of us for the last year or so. In Rahm's world, it's more fun, better politics, and definitely better economics to punch hippies than to challenge conservative financial forces. I can't tell you whether it's more business or personal for him by now; I suspect it's either both or the two are indistinguishable.

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