The Fight to Lose Congress

Some political strategists are hoping for defeat in November

Leah Millis / Reuters

The folkways of Washington often seem strange to outsiders, but it’s hard to imagine anything stranger than the question that’s currently getting serious (but very quiet) consideration from political insiders this fall: Would it be better to lose November’s elections than to win them?

“The best scenario for us is to pick up anywhere from ten to fourteen House seats and three to four in the Senate,” just short of a majority in each case, says a top adviser to one of the leading 2008 Democratic presidential candidates. A loss this year “would focus Republicans’ minds and missions in tremendously helpful ways for 2008,” suggests a GOP strategist with ties to the Bush administration.

In the Machiavellian plotting of political Washington, next month’s elections are merely a prelude to the main event two years from now. And some of the best avenues to winning the White House in 2008 involve losing in 2006. Here’s a quick primer.

Avoid the illusion of power. No matter who wins in November, the next majority in each chamber is likely to be very narrow, and a bare majority is often the worst possible outcome from a partisan standpoint. “If we hold on to both houses narrowly,” says the GOP strategist Tony Fabrizio, “we maintain the illusion of power and control, but actually have none … We can’t really get anything done, but will get blamed for all the problems.” But if the Democrats win, Fabrizio contends, they’ll bear some responsibility for government actions, which “will make it easier for several GOP candidates to run as ‘outsiders’” in 2008—the preferred path to the White House—“without having to take on the entire GOP establishment.”

Fabrizio is one of the few strategists in either party willing to state openly that losing one or both houses this year would actually help his side in 2008. But under cover of anonymity, many operatives in both parties sound this same note. A prominent architect of several national Democratic campaigns told me she’d prefer to gain ground but stay in the minority this year, enabling her party to “build [our] electoral profile and improve our electoral success in 2008.” “Leave the GOP in charge,” says the Democratic adviser. “That sets us up to sweep the decks in 2008.”

Put weak opponents in the spotlight. Leaving the Republicans in power, many Democrats suspect, might strengthen the widespread perception that the GOP is foundering. Some Republicans, meanwhile, would be happy to share the spotlight with the Democratic congressional leadership, which they see as feckless. “Once voters get a weekly dose of Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi without a meaningful, compelling, or substantive agenda,” says a top GOP strategist, “they’ll return quickly to the Republican fold.” Republican professionals privately appraise Pelosi as tone-deaf, unlikable, and prone to hectoring—a Newt Gingrich without the ideas. The damage that Speaker Pelosi might inflict, by association, on the likely presidential candidacy of another Democratic woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is icing on the cake.

No snacks before dinner. Never underestimate the effect of partisan hunger on national elections. “Losing the Senate in 1986,” the GOP pollster John McLaughlin told me, “probably made the Republicans hungrier to keep the White House in 1988. You would rather be hungry.” “Coming up a few seats short keeps the hunger alive,” agrees Pete Giangreco, an adviser to Democratic Senator Barack Obama. There’s a cost to indulging partisan appetites at the wrong time. Significant congressional power swings in the 1954, 1986, and 1994 midterms seemed only to blunt the momentum of the victors, who lost the next presidential election in each case.

Perhaps with this in mind, not everyone is putting his or her best foot forward this fall. Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean, for example, has publicly feuded over resources for 2006 with Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer, the Democrats who head the House and Senate campaign committees. Both Emanuel and Schumer want Dean to put more money into states and districts that are closely contested this year, while Dean is determined to build a “fifty-state party,” which means diverting funds to places that offer no immediate electoral payoff. Dean has stated clearly that he hopes Democrats win next month. But strategically, he’s taking the long view.

So, is it fair to say that self-sabotage is the watchword for the November election? No, that’s going too far. Most strategists on both sides—particularly those without ties to a 2008 presidential candidate—would still prefer to win now. (McLaughlin and Giangreco, while they see an upside to losing, are among them.)

But leaders in both parties do seem to share a fundamental pessimism about the country’s immediate future—and about the ability of Congress to do anything about it. Many political insiders expect the national mood in 2008 to be worse than it is today, and the politics more poisonous. With public trust in both parties waning, many of those whose task it is to win elections figure they might be better off holding their fire for now.

One Democratic Senate staffer, who’d prefer two more years in the minority to a narrow majority, notes, “It’s the difference between demanding a plan for Iraq and having to unveil one.” In other words, the fear of winning in 2006 is really all about the fear of losing—and the sense that over the next two years the nation still has more to lose.