Shouldn't Obama Worry About the Midterms?

Two longtime progressive senators announced their retirement this week, and so the Democratic Panic of 2010 begins in earnest. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Chris Dodd of Connecticut faced tough re-election challenges, and both decided they were not up for the fight. Their decisions are as personal as they are political, but their departures have been presented as definitive evidence of the "perilous political environment" that Democrats will face in the fall. This frantic reaction was entirely predictable, but it's also probably unnecessary and almost certainly premature.

The New York Times sounded the alarm on Tuesday: "Seldom has a week passed where a Democrat, fearful of the outcome in the midterm elections, hasn't switched parties or jumped ship entirely. But the decisions from Mr. Dodd and Mr. Dorgan, who have served a combined 46 years in the Senate, brought new attention to the party's troubles."

But Democrats have not turned over a Senate seat to the Republicans since 2004, and with 60 Democratic votes, they enjoy the largest majority margin seen in Congress by either party since 1976. So the tough political environment, it seems to me, is really a Republican problem. But I understand the lure of the story.

Democrats are currently paying the price for winning, and their troubles are a direct byproduct of having to govern. They have to do more than take positions -- they have to take action, and that opens them up to criticism. Ultimately, they will be judged on how well they govern and how close they come to keeping their promises. Health-care reform is a huge promise kept and will benefit Democrats in the end, despite what the polls say now. In fact, much of the disaffection with the president and his party actually reflects disappointment from progressives that Democrats didn't do more: more to improve health care, more to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more to stimulate the economy. Republicans can ever hope to attract this group, but Democrats still fear these malcontents may stay home.

In that scenario, Democrats' options become pretty clear: Continue to move the agenda on which you campaigned and remind people how awful the alternative is. Elections are a choice, and it's worth remembering that voters will ask not just what Democrats have done but also what Republicans propose to do. Now, I don't believe the only path to victory for Democrats in 2010 is to make the race about the GOP, as Tom Edsall proposes. But I also don't think Democrats should shy away from pointing out that Republicans sat on their hands and shot spitballs while Democrats were busy repairing all the damage caused in the previous eight years. Republicans are riding a wave of public unease about the economy and how Obama and the Democrats are handling it, but they have yet to come up with any attractive alternatives. Yes we know that health care is expensive and terrorism is a threat, as they keep reminding us. Yet we have no idea what they will do instead.

Polls show Obama ending his first year with the second lowest approval rating -- 50 percent -- of any president since the 1950s. But that is no predictor of success. Remember, the president with the highest approval rating going into his second year was George W. Bush, who, at 84 percent, was still basking in our post-September 11 grief.

Incidentally, Obama resembles no one in this respect as much as he does Ronald Reagan, who went on to remake the world in his image, reviving his party and steering the country into a long period of conservative rule. In 1982, Reagan began his second year with the lowest approval rating -- 49 percent -- of any president in the last half century. The similarities between 1981 and 2009? Bad economic times and a White House determined to get things done even if it had to sacrifice popularity points.

The Reagan comparison may cause a ripple of disquiet among progressives. But if Obama can do for progressives what Reagan did for conservatives, more than one airport will be named after him. In 1980, the Reagan landslide brought with it 12 new Republican seats to the Senate. A long list of Democratic heavyweights was sent packing that year: George McGovern, Frank Church, John Culver, Birch Bayh, Gaylord Nelson. Since 2006 Democrats have picked up 14 seats in the Senate and sent home their own list of GOP notables: Rick Santorum, George Allen, Ted Stevens.

In his first two years in office, Reagan dramatically restructured the tax system. He fired all the air-traffic controllers. He nominated the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, to the Supreme Court. And he went to the midterms with an approval rating of 43 percent. Republicans lost 26 seats in the House in 1982 but none in the Senate. Reagan then went on to win re-election easily and is now remembered as one of the most influential members of his party, the man who made conservatism respectable.

So why now, after a year of remarkable achievement, would Democrats be so anxious about their prospects? All this just because two senators, who have spent over 60 years in Congress combined, decided it was the right time to retire? History does not reward panic. Now is not the time for that.

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