Few things bring out the inanity of the punditry quite like an off-year election, and we were served a steaming portion of it after last week's results. If Democrats know what's good for them, they'll ignore all the advisement from the pundits about where they need to shift and what they need to fear -- no easy task when the clucking is near deafening.
The New Jersey and Virginia governor's races are always presented as though they have some Delphic power to reveal the future, for no reason other than the fact that, unlike those in the other 48 states, they occur in odd years when no other big elections take place. In the two races this year where national issues actually played a part -- the special congressional elections in New York and California -- Democrats won.
Nevertheless, the ever-reliable David Broder intoned that the gubernatorial races "signaled possible trouble ahead in the midterm elections at the national level" for Democrats. Peggy Noonan wrote that while voters in New Jersey and Virginia were surely rejecting Obama, the House race in New York was "too messy, too local, and too full of jumbly facts to yield a theme that coheres." (Really? How about, "Right-wing extremism is a recipe for defeat?" That's a theme.) After the elections, Andrea Mitchell of NBC asked White House adviser David Axelrod, "Is this going to make it much more difficult for you on the Hill to build the coalitions for health care in the immediate future?" Meanwhile, reporters had little trouble finding conservative Democrats to argue that their party ought to just shelve anything that looks like a progressive agenda.
But if Democrats want to hold their majorities in Congress next year and get Obama re-elected in three, they don't need to shift anywhere ideologically, and they don't need to put off one or another legislative priority. They need to do one simple thing: Deliver.
Conservative Democrats, according to The Hill, "don't want to be forced to vote on climate change, immigration reform and gays in the military, which they say should be set aside so Congress can focus on jobs and the economy." And just what is that "focus" supposed to consist of? Those making the suggestion seem to have no idea. They certainly haven't offered any actual proposals.
As for the economy, there are only so many things the federal government can do in the short term outside the unlikely move of passing another stimulus. We don't know what the economy will look like when the next congressional election takes place, but given that it grew last quarter and job losses are at least slowing (even if the total number of unemployed and underemployed continues to grow), chances are that things will at least be improving. It's a fair bet that the economy will be adding jobs next fall, even if it's somewhere between highly unlikely and damn near impossible that we will have climbed out of the unemployment hole we're now in.
So, the prevailing narrative will be that our economy is getting better and moving in the right direction, even if it won't yet have gotten where it needs to be. Democrats will probably air a version of the "morning in America" ads that Ronald Reagan ran in 1984, which asked, "Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?" -- in other words, don't forget how badly Republicans screwed things up when they were in charge. But overall, the picture on the economy will likely be a mixed one.
Voters, of course, will then focus on the rest of the agenda, asking a variant of the age-old question "What else have you done for me lately?" How will the Democrats answer? Will they say, "Well, not much really -- we didn't want to do too much, what with the economy so bad." Or will they be able to say, "Not only did we turn the economy around, but we defeated Republican obstruction and delivered health-care reform. And addressed climate change. And fixed the financial system."
At the end of the day, Democrats are going to have to justify why they got elected in the first place. They might be able to make an argument in favor of putting off one particular issue or another, but they had better be able to tell the public they made real accomplishments.
Fortunately for them, not only are their opponents as popular as the clap -- the latest Pew poll shows approval of Republicans at a Cheney-esque 24 percent. The GOP also doesn't seem to have much of a way of improving their popularity. When you're in the opposition, what matters most is what the governing party does, but even so, you can help or hurt yourself by offering a plausible and appealing alternative. Apparently the Republican leadership is operating on the theory that the louder someone screams, the more people he must represent, since the GOP seem to have thrown their lot in with the party's craziest elements. Nothing says, "We're offering responsible leadership" like having your most prominent members of Congress appear at a rally featuring signs comparing health-care reform to the Holocaust.
Democrats who wonder whether or not they ought to attempt to actually pass their agenda might think back to 1998. In the first full-blown scandal of the new media age, the president of the United States was caught having an affair with a 24-year-old White House intern, then deceiving the public about it. The public learned all the sordid details and lived through an even more sordid impeachment process. Yet Clinton's approval ratings were in the 60s all through that year and stayed that way through the end of his term.
Why? Because the economy was doing well, and the perception among the public was that Clinton had delivered. In the end, that mattered more than his personal failings, or the culture war, or anything else. Or Democrats might think back to 1965, when an extremely controversial program called Medicare was passed after conservatives cried "Socialism!" until their throats turned redder than Joe Stalin's underwear. The program delivered, which is why Republicans pretend to support it to this very day.
You can tell how deeply cynical a political operative is by how often he says, "Good policy is good politics" (it was one of Karl Rove's favorite things to tell reporters). But in some cases -- and this is one of them -- it's actually true. What matters isn't the predictable warnings of the centrist pundits, or the apocalyptic ravings of the extreme right. What matters is whether, with both houses of Congress and the White House in their hands, Democrats can deliver.