I don't think the Democrats should panic yet. It is still very early, and right now is an awful time for them to be polling: They simply haven't accomplished any of the major policy goals that they set in the 2008 campaign. Their biggest danger is seeing the current numbers and saying, well, we better just lie low. But that's not how you win an election. If the Democrats lose next year, they'll only have themselves to blame. Why?
- They didn't pass health-care reform, an energy bill or financial regulatory reform. Passing one or all of these bills is necessary to winning next year. Democrats need to demonstrate that they can govern effectively and fulfill their electoral promises. Wimping out, or compromising bills down to nothing, will not only fail to appease angry voters, it will give them nothing to bring back to their base.
- They didn't do enough to improve the economy. Much of the disapproval rises and falls with unemployment. If the Dems end up losing seats because the economy isn't strong enough, they'll have to look back at their bad decisions on the stimulus -- not just the size of the package, but how it was constructed, whether it was cutting state funding, not providing enough infrastructure investment, or including the AMT fix in the bill. Don't get me wrong, the stimulus has been a success, but that doesn't answer the question of whether it was successful enough.
- They didn't run with the president. President Obama is much more popular than Congress these days, and it shows. Democrats' efforts to distance themselves from the president may be a traditional way to demonstrate independence, but the mid-term elections depend on getting the Democratic base, particularly young people and minorities, excited. While some House districts where McCain beat the president might demand more cautious tactics, even there the benefits of Obama probably outweigh the costs. (And don't forget all those Republican seats where Obama beat McCain).
- Corruption dragged them down. The Democrats in Congress aren't as corrupt as the Republicans of the Delay years, when a network of lobbyist-instigated boondoggles spread throughout the GOP leadership. But there are enough individually corrupt Democrats that Republicans could build a narrative of problems during campaign season. In particular, Charlie Rangel and John Murtha are embarrassments to the Democrats. Democratic leadership should actively reprimand these members and reduce their power over committees, and soon.
Making a prediction right now, I'd say the Democrats face a net loss of 10 to 20 House seats, and a net gain of two or three Senate seats, where the map is very favorable to them; it's also my impression that the Democrats continue to have a stronger congressional campaign apparatus than the Republicans. Take all that with a whole shaker of salt, since it is so early. It all that depends on what congressional Democrats choose to do about their problems: Whether they take their majority for granted or decide to use it to pass legislation and make a case for staying in power.
-- Tim Fernholz
*Keep in mind, this story was pretty clearly planted by Democrats looking to invigorate their fundraising base; they're still on par with Republicans and most of the comparisons in the piece come with past Dem years, not with Republican success now.