Mid-Term Shuffle: With or Without a ‘Wave,’ Agenda Caught in Undertow

Jan 7, 2010 8:21am

By Rick Klein Now that dreams of 60-plus Senate votes can join the public option and a closed Gitmo in some alternative Democratic dream universe … Democrats get to try to do something in this rapidly changing world. If 2010 wasn’t complicated enough, the year plays out now with the political world re-learning that lesson about the impermanence of a permanent everything. (You’d think we would have remembered that one this time around.) Partly by design, partly by circumstance, so much of what President Obama hoped to achieve was foisted onto his second year in office. Now that year looks not just crowded, but cramped and hot. It’s as if the mid-term elections are a wave with an undertow — roiling the waters on the front end, in addition to whatever soak they’ll have on the last two years of the president’s term. Every legislative push will face its own squeeze: Voices on the outside and the inside of Congress know that President Obama is unlikely to again enjoy voting margins like he does this year. But those margins are built by Democrats who have more reasons to be concerned about their political fates, virtually by the day. The challenge is not just improving the electoral environment, but in improving the governing environment over these next 10 months. “With the chances growing that the election in November would end the 60-vote majority Democrats enjoy in the Senate — the practical threshold for being able to overcome united Republican opposition — the president and his party face additional urgency to make progress on his agenda this year,” Jeff Zeleny and Adam Nagourney write in The New York Times. “To the degree that the retirements reflect increasing skepticism among voters about the direction Democrats are pushing the country, Mr. Obama could face a tougher time winning legislative support as he presses ahead with initiatives on climate change, financial regulation, education and other issues.” Watch the agenda shrink along with Democrats’ chances: “Controversial initiatives already on the operating table, such as climate-change legislation, almost certainly won’t be revived this year, as nervous members start pondering their chances in November. And the administration could be forced to compromise on other top priorities, such as an overhaul of financial regulation,” Peter Wallsten and Naftali Bendavid write in The Wall Street Journal. It’s “a wind shift that has thrown the Democratic Party off balance and turned the politics of raising hope into the politics of managing anger,” Janet Hook reports in the Los Angeles Times. “Now, the country seems to be yelling back, ‘No, you can’t,’ ” McClatchy’s Steven Thomma and David Lightman report. Let this concept marinate in the minds of Democratic incumbents — including some who haven’t been in public life quite as long as Sen. Chris Dodd: “It’s as if the people don’t know him,” Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., speaking of Dodd, told The Boston Globe’s Susan Milligan. What last year could be remembered for? “The year 2009 marked the end of a three-year run of majority Democratic support among U.S. adults. Last year, an average of 49.0% of Americans identified as Democrats or said they leaned Democratic, the party’s first yearly average below 50% since 2005,” Jeffrey M. Jones writes of Gallup Poll data. Enough sets of isolated circumstances, and you start to see a trend: “Democrats now face the evaporation of their 60-vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and losses in the House that a number of strategists across party lines conservatively estimate in the range of 20 to 25 seats,” Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. David Axelrod: “We understand the challenge. But gloomy? No.” Sixty doesn’t even mean 60 these days — so what does 55 or 52 mean? “While Republicans may not be immediately positioned to pick up the needed seats to win control of the House and Senate, Tuesday’s retirements represent a blow to Democratic expectations and will very likely spell the end of the party’s filibuster-proof Senate majority,” Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Alex Isenstadt write. “The bottom line for Obama: Losing even one seat in the Senate would make it more difficult to block Republican filibusters. And if the GOP makes big gains in the House – a pickup of 30 or more seats is seeming ever more likely — that will make it much harder to pass administration proposals,” the AP’s Liz Sidoti writes. Looking for bright spots? “The Democrats’ map is not a happy one. If managing a barely filibuster-proof majority has been hell for the party’s leaders, this now seems to be one burden they won’t have to worry about next year,” E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his column. Party leaders can’t really control such things, but they can hope: “I’m not sure exactly what the pattern’s going to be, but what I do know is we’re not going to see a wave of Democratic retirements like we saw in 1994,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said on ABC’s “Top Line” Wednesday. “We’re right now at 12 — maybe there’ll be a couple more.” Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee: “I would say the optics of having six Republican open seats is more significant,” Menendez told The Plum Line’s Greg Sargent. “They have to run the table to be even at the end of the day.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page — in an argument will harp on: “The looming collapse of the Democrats’ momentarily filibuster-proof majority is reason enough not to ram through a health-care bill on a partisan vote. The brute political force will only look more willful and dismissive of public opinion.” On health care impact, “We best hang together, or surely we’ll hang separately,” Democratic strategist James Carville said on “Good Morning America” Thursday. “Still, the sense is, if this fails, it would be worse for us politically than if it passes.” Countered Republican Nicolle Wallace: “I think it will probably pass — but I think it will do something that’s even uglier than limping across the finish line.” Tempering some Democratic optimism, in Connecticut: “Since [Richard] Blumenthal was elected in 1990, he has NEVER faced a competitive race. That’s probably not going to bode well for him as he begins his campaign in a highly charged political environment,” writes Neil Newhouse, a pollster working for former Rep. Rob Simmons’, R-Conn., campaign. The Hartford Courant’s Jon Lender: “Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal could be viewed as one of the state’s greatest cases of untapped political potential, held back by his own caution in a job that’s become too comfortable — like the perennial minor-league MVP who never tried to crack the majors.” Framing the race, in Massachusetts, on a day Attorney General Martha Coakley is set to soak in some Kennedy aura: “Veteran political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg said it’s possible that [Republican Scott] Brown could get 40%, or more, of the popular vote. That would be framed as a moral victory for Republicans and a warning shot for Democrats in an overwhelmingly Democratic state,” Gannett’s Chuck Raasch writes. The president’s day is dominated by the release of an unclassified version of the security review he ordered up of the Christmas Day terrorist plot. The president is scheduled to address those findings at 1 pm ET at the White House. ABC’s Jake Tapper: “The review, conducted by White House homeland security adviser John Brennan, will pinpoint the various failures of the intelligence community to ‘connect the dots,’ as President Obama put it on Tuesday.” A taste: “U.S. border security officials learned of the alleged extremist links of the suspect in the Christmas Day jetliner bombing attempt as he was airborne from Amsterdam to Detroit and had decided to question him when he landed,” the Los Angeles Times’ Sebastian Rotella reports. “Shock”: “White House national security adviser James Jones says Americans will feel ‘a certain shock’ when they read an account being released Thursday of the missed clues that could have prevented the alleged Christmas Day bomber from ever boarding the plane,” USA Today’s Susan Page reports. Action: “President Barack Obama has ordered a ‘surge’ of federal air marshals to be in place by Feb.1 in what officials said was a ‘race against time,’ with other suicide bombers believed to be in the terrorist pipeline, although there is no specific imminent threat,” ABC’s and Anna Schecter and Brian Ross report. Other dots getting connected: “A new Pentagon analysis shows the number of former Guantanamo detainees that it says have returned to the fight has continued to rise to 20 percent, up from the 14 percent recidivism rate released last spring,” ABC’s Luis Martinez reports. “The latest increase continues the upward trend from the two previous reports.” 9/11 Commission Vice Chair Lee Hamilton, on ABC’s Jake Tapper’s podcast: “I just think what’s pervasive through the country, and has been now for a number of years, is the complacency, an inertia, a business-as-usual attitude … that I think is harmful,” Hamilton said. “You can’t put all the responsibility on the president, but obviously he shares a major part of it.” Time’s Mark Halperin finds argues that January is going well for Obama — including with the focus on terrorism: “Silver lining: Lessons (galore) learned on how to project commander-in-chiefiness in the wake of crisis.” And health care looks like it’s on the move again — with the president just maybe taking sides. “President Barack Obama signaled to House Democratic leaders Wednesday that they’ll have to drop their opposition to taxing high-end health insurance plans to pay for health coverage for millions of uninsured Americans,” the AP’s Erica Werner reports. “In a meeting at the White House, Obama expressed his preference for the insurance tax contained in the Senate’s health overhaul bill, but largely opposed by House Democrats and organized labor.” Getting involved: “Mr. Obama may have little choice but to emerge from listening mode in the days ahead. Senate leaders return to Washington next week, and pressure will only mount on him to help broker the final differences between the bills,” The New York Times’ David Herszenhorn reports. This is a key inflection point for labor — and for the left. Health care reform is pretty far down the tracks to try to stop or even redirect at this point — but there are quite a few public statements out there to explain away. Broader pushback: “As the tax proposal takes on an aura of inevitability, pockets of skepticism remain, even beyond labor unions, which are often cast as the main opposition because many union plans would be taxed,” Alec MacGillis writes in The Washington Post. “Health analysts recently questioned the assumption that the tax would target only the most lavish insurance packages.” The “Cadillac tax” as clunker: “I think it’s a plan that has great political risk for the Democrats,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn, per ABC’s Teddy Davis. Surely being highlighted in a presidential speech soon … Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., a fan no longer of health care reform: “You’ve heard of the bridge to nowhere. This is health care to nowhere.” ABC’s Jonathan Karl, on “Good Morning America” Thursday: “Democrats are confident they’ll ultimately prevail, but as final negotiations begin, there are several things that could kill the bill. … Some Democrats are insisting that the Nebraska deal be removed, but they still need [Sen. Ben] Nelson’s vote.” Coming Sunday, in The New York Times Magazine: Mark Leibovich on the Florida Senate race: “It is not uncommon for a party out of power to undergo an identity crisis and an internal bloodletting, and it is [Gov. Charlie] Crist’s bad luck that his race in 2010 fits the frame of a philosophical debate that has been fulminating in the Republican Party for several months.” For the growing Steele files: “Some wealthy contributors are shunning the Republican National Committee and donating instead to the other GOP campaign committees or directly to candidates — in many cases because of discontent with the leadership of Michael S. Steele, the party’s national chairman,” Ralph Z. Hallow reports in the Washington Times. The Kicker: “On another note, I don’t believe in retirement.” — Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., 86. “It’s possible, it’s possible.” — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on the chance of a final health care vote in January.
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