How Obama Can Win

Jonathan Chait offers the president some advice: don't go all negative on Mitt Romney (as the president's advisers are reportedly advocating), just remind people he's a Republican.

Americans turned against the GOP en masse at the end of the Bush administration and never turned back. Republicans won the midterm elections in part by simply escaping public wrath against Democratic-controlled Washington, and in part by exploiting a much smaller, older, whiter electorate than you'd see in a presidential year. But very high-profile, very crazy Republican rule in the House of Representatives has rekindled and actually deepened the public's distrust.

Today's CNN poll is quite striking. In October of 2010, both parties were viewed about as favorably by the public (Democrats stood at 46% favorable/47% unfavorable, Republicans 44/42.) The Democratic party today is about the same -- 47% view it favorably, 47% unfavorably. But the Republican Party's favorability has collapsed -- 33% of Americans view it favorably, 59% unfavorably. That -26% favorability gap is lower than the party's rating before the 2006 election (-14%) or the 2008 election (-16%.) The GOP is completely toxic.

I agree that the poll is striking, and I will be glad if it means that the GOP is punished for its recklessness over the debt-ceiling fiasco. But I don't read the 2010 elections as a case of "simply escaping public wrath against Democratic-controlled Washington" or "exploiting a much smaller, older, whiter electorate than you'd see in a presidential year". I read them as saying that Obama and the Democrats have to be stopped. The GOP have over-interpreted that victory as a mandate for the radical dismantling of the public sector. But Obama should not make the mistake of under-interpreting it.

Democrats don't want to hear this, but the country is doubtful about further stimulus spending and rightly demanding answers on the long-term fiscal problem. Voters don't believe that higher taxes on "millionaires and billionaires" are enough to solve that problem. True, this is no longer Obama's position--but voters saw how he had to be forced off it. I think they give the GOP some credit for that.

The Wisconsin recall elections can be read in various ways, but they certainly don't herald a ferocious backlash against "toxic" Republicans of the sort Chait expects. I agree with him that Republican irresponsibility over the debt ceiling has given Obama and the Democrats an opening, but they can best exploit this if they respond--for once, as if they mean it--to concerns about the long-term debt issue. The best way for Democrats to get the GOP rejected as extremists is to be centrists-by-conviction themselves. Otherwise, some uncommitted voters are going to reason that they must keep backing the GOP, for all its faults, to make the Democrats behave. And if enough of them do that, Obama will lose.

In a column for the FT, I suggest other reasons for an adjustment of Democratic tactics. This one, in particular:

[S]et aside the question of how conservative a country the US really is. Whatever view you take on that, the Democrats' vision of an ambitious and expanded role for government puts them at a perpetual tactical disadvantage. Under constitutional arrangements that demand consensus, Republicans win merely by refusing to co-operate. See, we told you Washington makes a hash of everything. The debt-ceiling farce is a perfect instance. It was chiefly a Republican production, but it made Washington - whose role the Democrats want to enlarge - a national joke. Obstinacy in defence of core principles pays no such dividends for Democrats.

That calls for a tactical adjustment. Less big vision and more humdrum pragmatism, preferably all round, would make Washington more effective. But even an unreciprocated step in that direction would serve Democratic interests as well as the country.