The White House: Let Conservatives Win... (For Now)

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The White House is playing it cool. Faced with the prospect of losing governor's mansions in Virginia and New Jersey, a would-be pick-up seat in New York, maybe a few liberal policy referendums and the mayoralty of Atlanta,  Obama administration political and policy planners will put on their Snuggies Tuesday night and watch FlashFoward.  It's the future they're concerned about, not the present.
The White House expects the GOP to do well in 2010 as conservatives interpret the elections of 2009 as a verdict on ideology -- the capiatulating, week-kneed ideology of party functionaries. Further, the White House expects Republicans to pick up House seats. This is overdetermined. The White House wants conservatives to think that whatever happens in 2009 and in 2010 has worked for them, because the White House believes that the GOP short-term success will be a mirage -- a fiction built on the blown stacks of angry white men in the exurbs and in the South. 

The more Republicans find their voice on the right, on what White House officials call the "Palin-Beck" axis, the better Democrats will fare after 2010, when they still should have their majorities, when they should have a sleeve of accomplishments, when it becomes clear that Republicans are unwilling or unable to build a genuine coalition. 

Let Republicans use 2010 to make noise, to pick up some phyrric House seats, while Democrats work on long-term accomplishments, on policy that can't be undone by a rump minority party, while Obama continues to reach out, literally and figuratively, to independents, while House Democrats continue to dog-whistle to the liberal base. The tension between the White House and Congress comes in here. Congressional Democrats may be tempted to veer left in order to stem expected 2010 losses. Congressional leaders might interpret the anti-incumbent mood and start to take stands against the White House -- albeit from the left.

The one genuine area of worry: the Democratic Congress's unpopularity. It's the Congress that's seen as profligate, as uncontrollable, as quasi-socialist, as too liberal. Obama still hovers above his party in populartiy, but the density of the party has pulled the president closer to earth. The White House is more concerned with the prospect for a half dozen Democrats to lose their seats because of ethics scandals, but most of those seats will be in Democratic areas.

In a sense, the White House's agenda for 2010 was set long before anyone had ever heard of Doug Hoffman. Faced with the prospect of a obliquely angeled "V" shaped recession, the president's policy planners have been trying to figure out how to create jobs in an economy that is newly conditioned to be lean. Trouble is, of course, that the range of policy options favored by Democrats -- more spending, more government transfers -- are at odds with the second fundamental reality of the economy: the deficit and mounting debt. 

Politically, the White House blames Republicans for the renaissance of partisanship since Obama's election. The 2008 election was so lopsided that it knocked the moderate instincts out of many Republicans, and, indeed, knocked many of them out of office. Others were appointed to the administration by a president who genuinely wants bipartisan reforms and who also wants credit for it. What's left is a rump party -- a very loud one, unfiltered by the need to build a majority coalition because they're so far in the minority.

Here's how the White House is boxed in. Two years into a presidency, the opposition party tends to be more enthusiastic than the party in power, absent some major external event that temporarily distorts the magnectic balance of politics. Republicans have a generic advantage here, as the smaller party tends to turn out a higher percentage of their voters than the larger party. (For decades, Republicans have been the smaller of the two parties.) The way for Democrats to remedy this enthusiasm gap is to cater to the base. But doing so could drive angry independents into the arms of a waiting Republican Party -- a vessel for anti-incumbent, anti-government, anti-Obama energy. It doesn't really matter than the GOP brand has lower Q ratings than Jon Gosslein -- the GOP is ready to say what it takes to get seats back. And there are at least 15 to 20 seats, the White House calculates, that would be flippable even without an enthusiasm gap between the two parties. This is OK, from the Democratic perspective: they really don't need as many seats in the House as they have.

The generic ballot question, as Gallup's pollsters note today, tilts toward Republicans. Forget the likely voter models -- it's too early for them -- among registered voters, Gallup gives Democrats a two-point advantage. Given the GOP's inherent midterm advantage, this means that more Republicans are likely to turn out. (It also means that Democrats can win less than 50% of the two-party vote nationwide and still hold on to most of their majority.)

The White House agenda for 2010 includes financial industry reform, deficit reduction, the beginnings of tax reform, the management of expectations about jobs, and add-ons to the health care bill. They're gridding for a fight about education, an area where Obama has quietly proposed a significant portfolio of expensive reforms.  Immigration reform will prove divisive -- divisive in a way that may hurt Democrats in 2010 -- but will, in the White House's POV, redound to their benefit in 2012. 
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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