Democrats Are Itching for a Fight

And it will have to come from something other than filibuster reform.

Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Republicans, whose obsession with repealing Obamacare was seen as debilitating when it led them to shut down the government, can now boast about their prescience.

Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid brought a showdown over President Obama’s judicial nominations, Republicans complained that he was launching a fake fight to distract from the disaster of Obamacare. We know that this was a crazy charge. If Reid were launching a fake fight, he’d have come up with a much longer one. The vote that changed the rules so that filibusters of executive appointments and lower-court judges could be broken with 51 votes instead of 60 was important, but it wasn’t drawn out for maximum political advantage. By Senate standards, where nothing is said unless everyone has a chance to say it twice, the day or so of debate was brisk. The so-called nuclear option was nuclear—over in a flash. If Reid wanted to delay things, he would have used the land war in Asia option.

That’s not to say Democrats aren’t looking for a diversion. They’re desperate for one. Democrats nervous about the Affordable Care Act debacle are holding on to two articles of faith. One is that healthcare.gov will work some day and that people will start signing up in sufficient numbers. The other is that there will be a big fight to come with Republicans that will help them off the ropes. Democratic officials have no control over the first, but on the second, if a fight doesn’t happen soon, they may have to pick one.

For Democrats trying to hold on to control of the Senate and not lose ground in the House in 2014, simply defending themselves from Obamacare attacks won’t be enough. They need to find an issue that puts Republicans on the defensive. Historically speaking, Democrats won’t have it easy next year. Since World War II, in the elections held in the sixth year of a president’s term, the party in the White House has averaged a 29-seat loss in the House and a nearly six-seat loss in the Senate. The healthcare.gov detour has wasted time, hurt Democrats in the polls, and put greater pressure on coming up with a strategy that defines Republicans. This all means we can expect an even nastier campaign season and more bruising legislative clashes in the future. 

Since the Affordable Care Act website succumbed to stage fright on its Oct. 1 debut, the Democrats have lost their advantage in the generic ballot test against Republicans, the crude polling measurement used to test the public mood going into congressional elections. Just after the government shutdown, Democrats had an eight-point advantage in an average of the polls. Now they have a one-point lead.

In addition, Republicans, whose obsession with repealing Obamacare was seen as debilitating when it led them to shut down the government, can now boast about their prescience. They can crow that their larger argument about the scope and size of government intervention has also been ratified. They can watch while Democrats splinter over how many modifications to make to the law. Congressional Republicans do not have a coherent agenda of their own, but they can hide that deficiency for the moment by running against the president’s health care plan. These GOP talking points published by the New York Times make that clear. 

Right now, Republicans feel very little need to confront Democrats directly—they are simply huddling in their locker room. Democrats need to do something to bring Republicans onto the field. In the meantime, Democrats are battling with themselves—both with their president’s unfulfilled promises and with how the details of legislation could be tweaked in this way or that. They are struggling to find a way to change the subject or at least fight to a draw. That’s why you’re likely to hear more from Democrats about the 35-page GOP “playbook” on how to use Obamacare’s failures as a political weapon. “It allows us to point out that everything they’re doing is purely political,” says Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen.

Given how low Republicans were several weeks ago, Democrats can bank on the fact that in time, their fortunes will turn. It is the nature of the political circle of life. While Democratic numbers may have dropped, Republican numbers have not risen. In the generic ballot test, Democrats have simply fallen to the Republicans’ level. The latest CBS poll shows that, despite the president’s troubles, the Republicans in Congress have a 21-point approval rating, only three points higher than during the depths of the government shutdown. Democrats are looking for an issue that reconnects the public to those feelings that have caused them to think of Republicans in such historically abysmal terms. 

For candidates up for re-election, the most potent attacks will be specific to their opponent, but those attacks often gain extra potency when they land on fertile ground prepared by national debates. The showdown over Republican judicial obstructionism didn’t create a fight that will wake the public, but fights next year over the minimum wage and immigration might. The most often cited location for defining debates is the budget fights, an area where Democrats can return to talking about their core issues—middle-class economic security and maintaining the safety net. There have been reports that Republicans and Democrats are making progress on a short-term budget agreement in advance of the Jan. 15 deadline, but that may be oversold. They are making progress relative to their previous disagreements, but the old debates about what loopholes to close and how much spending to cut offer the potential for a public flare-up.  Now that the Senate has changed the filibuster rules, Republicans may also be spoiling for a fight and even less willing to compromise.

Even if they do reach agreement on a way to reconfigure the sequestration cuts for the next year or so, the next round of formal budget presentations will start next year. Republican House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan will present another formal budget, and Democrats expect it to provide rich targets as Ryan reiterates his plans to transform Medicare and Social Security. 

While Democrats wait for their issue to come along, many are grinding their teeth at the president. Conversations with strategists involved in protecting Democratic fortunes include therapeutic moments where they simply vent about how little love there is for the president. “No one is going to do it for good old Barack,” said one, during a conversation about whether the president could promote anything in future budget negotiations that his base would find mildly discomforting. The consensus is that Obama’s dislike of politics—oddly, also his chosen profession—means there is a shallow reservoir of goodwill for him among his party. Many members feel like they are on their own, dealing with the messes he has created more than benefiting from his help. 

Among those in tight races, this feeling is no doubt true, but those same members may not want to dismiss him so completely. While the president is toxic in their districts, the president may yet have an electoral role to play in the search for a public confrontation. Despite his low approval ratings and new public doubts about his trustworthiness, the president is still more popular than his Republican opponents. He also has a unique microphone. A question to watch for in 2014 is whether the president goes to bat for his party in an energetic way or whether he refrains from ending his presidency on a highly partisan note. Of course, this all supposes he has this choice and isn’t still trying to explain what happened to his website.