How to Defend the Senate

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It is now so widely assumed that Democrats will take a beating at the polls in November that most of the corporate political-action-committee money donated to candidates and campaigns this year is going to Republicans. Already there is open speculation about who will replace Harry Reid as leader of what, it is assumed, will be a Democratic Senate minority.

The perception that Democratic troubles run deep is reinforced by the fact that the party is threatened with the loss of not just the Democratic leader's seat but also the seats once held by the president and the vice president. Democratic candidates in both Illinois and Delaware are trailing in most polls.

Democrat-held seats in North Dakota and Indiana seem hopelessly lost, and incumbents like Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold, who should not be in trouble, could find themselves in closer-than-expected re-election races. Still, the presumption of a Democratic wipeout is at least premature, since the anti-incumbency wave that is supposed to result in a Democratic meltdown this fall has so far been a primary, inside-the-party phenomenon that may not transfer to the November general elections with the same results.

Still, after having passed a stimulus package, health care, and financial regulation by extremely narrow margins in the Senate, Democrats must have a sense of how crucial retaining control of the Senate will be to advancing their agenda and Barack Obama's re-election chances.

How they do that against the backdrop of the historical disadvantage of holding the White House going into midterm elections and the persistence of the anti-incumbency narrative may be the key question of this political season. The answer is to get busy defining their opponents and to stay busy in Washington.

Any sense of accomplishment that the administration in particular and Democrats in general now enjoy is the result of a few very close votes in the Senate that could easily have gone the other way. But the solution to the Democrats' problems this fall lies in exactly those close votes. Harry Reid's ability to deliver close wins on the stimulus, health care, and financial regulation, along with a well-managed confirmation hearing for Sonia Sotomayor last summer and Elena Kagan next month, is the foundation for the message that Democrats will take to voters this fall.

Their argument, in essence: We are getting things done. Republicans are gambling that they will be able to argue that the things being accomplished are the wrong things, but that strikes me as a questionable bet in a climate in which voters want more solutions and less gridlock.

Republicans calculate that they can actually use the issues against the president and his party as evidence of an out-of-control federal government. While the notion is not to be entirely dismissed, it is a hard sell because voters, for the most part, respect action and accomplishment.

The caveat, of course, is that Democrats will get credit for the accomplishments if they are willing to claim them as such and defend that record, rather than obscure or rationalize it.

Republicans see an opening to run against the president's agenda, because polls say that public support for that agenda has waned, but again, they must be careful not to come across as desperately obstructionist at a time when people want solutions. The loss of support for the president's agenda began with a sense that he was doing too much to bailout Wall Street, but it will be hard for the heavily business-identified GOP to run against Obama as a Wall Street lackey.

The disastrous Democratic messaging during the health-care debate further eroded the president's approval, but two of the three most crucial factors responsible for that erosion do not accrue to Republican advantage. First, thanks to brilliant GOP messaging, people did not understand what the bill was about, did not think the administration could get it done, and were not sure it was worth all the trouble. Now that it's done and the sky has not fallen, the utility of that message as a political tool is significantly muted.

Second, many Democrats were upset that the bill did not go further and was too timid; as a general rule, but the disappointment of people who wanted a more radical health care bill is unlikely to turn into Republican wave at the polls this fall The third factor, of course, was the cost of health care; how voters factor that into the equation come November will depend on what else is on the table then. If unemployment is still at 10 percent and there is no sense of improvement in the economy, it may not matter what else the Democrats do.

But they may not need much movement on that front to reassure voters that they deserve to keep them in charge. Many experts believe that that the single most important factor in the outcome of congressional midterms is the president's approval rating. Noted political analyst Rhodes Cook, wrote recently: "the venerable Gallup Poll and other public opinion surveys lags below 50 percent, roughly the dividing line between modest congressional losses for the president’s party and huge ones."

The White House is hoping that the economic rebound sends the president's numbers in the right direction. And even were they to remain at current levels, Democrats may be able to avoid a catastrophe. In 1982, the last time unemployment was as high as it is now, Ronald Reagan went into the first midterms of his presidency with a 41 percent approval rating, which would have suggested a devastating losses for Republicans. Instead, he lost 27 of the 34 House seats the GOP had won two years earlier; since Democrats controlled the House both before and after the election, the losses did not seem to matter much. In the Senate, one Republican incumbent lost in 1982, and one incumbent Democrat was defeated, keeping the margins exactly as they had been with Republicans maintaining control.

The midterms of 1994 and 2006 are the most recent ones in which control of the Congress changed hands. In both cases President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush had significantly lower approval ratings compared to where Obama is today. Both men were at 39 percent in the weeks leading up to Election Day. If Democrats keep want to avoid a repeat of 1994 or 2006, they have to keep winning those close votes in the Senate, giving people a sense that they are on the job.