Could Republicans Take the House?

The White House would like you to think so.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

When Robert Gibbs said on Meet the Press that Democrats could lose the House of Representatives, Republicans jumped on the remarks. “The fact that the Obama White House is acknowledging that there is even a possibility that Democrats could lose their majority in the House should be read as a tacit admission that their economic policies have failed in the eyes of the voters,” said Ken Spain, the Republican Congressional Committee’s communications director. Matt Drudge also highlighted Gibbs’ remarks.

Did Gibbs let slip one of those truths that everyone in Washington knows but that as the president’s spokesman is not supposed to admit? No. He merely articulated the White House political strategy.

To commit a gaffe, as Michael Kinsley defined it, is to accidentally tell the truth. It is true (or at least common wisdom) that Republicans have a shot at winning the House. Historically, presidents often lose seats in the first election after being inaugurated. After two election cycles of Democratic gains, there are a high number of vulnerable seats in Republican territory. (Of the 28 seats in CQ’s tossup category, 25 are currently held by Democrats.) The economic recovery is anemic, and voters want to throw out the incumbents, most of whom are Democrats. But if Gibbs had committed a gaffe in the Kinsleyian sense, he’d have shared a truth that goes unspoken. While Gibbs had never previously put it exactly as he did on Sunday, his boss has been raising the specter of a Republican majority for months.

In May, the president warned that if Republicans took over Congress, they would repeal the just-passed health care law. He added that they’d drive the country’s economy into the ditch again, as they did last time they were in control. “The American people will have a choice about whether or not we’re going to keep rebuilding [an] America that is stronger and more prosperous,” Obama said at Democratic fundraiser in New York, “or going back to the policies that got us into this mess in the first place.” He has repeated those remarks since then, including at two events last week in Missouri and Nevada.

In a campaign where neither party benefits much from positive messages and where the Democratic base is dispirited and less enthusiastic than its counterparts, fear is the best motivator. Since Sarah Palin isn’t running for anything this time around, the best specter the president has to conjure is Republicans in control of Congress. (Obama isn’t the only one using fear to energize voters. Palin’s much-discussed new ad looks soft and sounds empowering, but the underlying message is that the Democrats are a malevolent force.)

This is not the time for Obama to embrace his trademark penchant for complexity by admitting there’s a solid case to be made that  Republicans won’t win back the House. Instead, he has jumped on every Republican gaffe to help him put on the fright show. When Rep. Joe Barton apologized to BP for the White House pressure that led to the $20 billion fund to pay oil-spill claims, Gibbs pointed out that if Republicans take control, Barton would be in charge of the committee that helps shape energy policy. When Republican Minority Leader John Boehner seemed to compare the financial crisis to an insect, Obama and his aides seized on that, too.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Click image to expand.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs

Gibbs was was also trying to set expectations. Obama’s party is on track to lose in the midterms. If Gibbs and fellow Democrats can make retaking Congress the standard by which Republican gains are judged, they shape the coverage of election night. If Republicans win big but don’t take control of Congress, reporters might write fewer words about how the loss was a huge defeat for the president.

Just because Gibbs is working a strategy doesn’t mean Republican political operatives were dumb to make an issue of the comment. That’s what campaign committees of both parties do. They overreact in the hopes that flipping out will catch on with their bases. There’s a chance that less-hardcore voters might pay attention, too. What’s an obvious “truth” to Washington insiders isn’t so obvious to the rest of the country.

And they have reason to celebrate. The White House does not take this approach because it is in a position of strength. Eighteen months ago, after the Obama victory, the GOP was declared dead. Time magazine put the GOP elephant on the cover with the headline “Endangered Species.” The NRCC’s Spain pointed this out in his third e-mail in 24 hours on Gibbs’ remarks. The White House is trying to energize its own voters, but the other side is getting pretty excited, too.

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