Call it chronic suspicion of the conventional wisdom, or even petulant contrariness. Still, the rush to declare that the Democrats will rampage to control of Congress in two weeks seems a little shaky. There are too many uncertainties for anybody to accept uncritically predictions of 20-seat Democratic gains in the House and perhaps control of the Senate.
The biggest? If the midterm is a referendum on the Iraq war—and that is what the polls say—voting Democratic is not exactly an anti-war vote. In particular, Democratic House candidates are not within striking distance of GOP candidates on the strength of anti-war campaigns.
Writing in Counterpunch, John Walsh claims the "fix is already in." By that he means that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chief Rahm Emanuel has hand-picked a slate of pro-war Democrats to take on the most vulnerable House Republicans. Walsh claims that many Democratic candidates who are presumably headed for victory hold a position on the Iraq war that "is indistinguishable from that of George W. Bush."
In contrast to voters' sentiment, 64% of the Democratic candidates in the 45 closely contested House Congressional races oppose a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. Note carefully: not only do these Democrat worthies oppose the Murtha or McGovern bills for rapid withdrawal or defunding the war; they oppose so much as a timetable.
Walsh considers this a "betrayal of the Democratic rank and file," which it may or may not be. The important thing for November's outcome is that outrage over the war is driving voter intensity for the Democrats. And superior voter intensity—the likelihood that a polled voter will actually turn out and vote—is what is ultimately driving all the talk of a blowout Democrat midterm.
The Pew Research Center recently built an "anger index" designed to capture this aspect of voter motivation. It found that Democrats hold roughly a 20-point "anger advantage" over Republicans. Pew concluded: "Anger is a much stronger factor in turnout for Democrats than it is for Republicans and independents."
However, if these same enraged anti-war Dems realize before the election that there are no anti-war candidates for them to support, will they still show up to vote on Election Day? This seems to be a great unknown that is routinely overlooked when backward-looking poll data are used to try and predict future voter behavior.
Right now, however, Democrats are correct to crow about their angry, motivated voters. The GOP has benefited from an inchoate angry white male vote for years. Payback is a bitch.
But if Democrats are not exactly running an overt anti-war campaign, what are they running on? Much of it can be boiled down to "we are not Republicans," and in 2006 that may be enough. However, that blows up any parallel with 1994 and the Republican Contract with America campaign, which did attempt to quantify differences between the parties.
The lack of any over-arching theme to the Democratic campaign leaves an odd mish-mash of issues to form the agenda for a new Democratic Congress. Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post has been one of the few pundits to wonder out loud what a Democratic Congress might actually try to do:
In the House, the Democrats have made clear that there's a first tier of legislation they mean to bring to a vote almost immediately after the new Congress convenes. It includes raising the minimum wage, repealing the Medicare legislation that forbids the government from negotiating with drug companies for lower prices, replenishing student loan programs, funding stem cell research and implementing those recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission that have thus far languished… They will surely boost funding for alternative energy projects, which they see as a way not just to reduce greenhouse gases but to generate jobs as well.
All right then. Angry anti-war voters are going to march to the polls and vote Democratic so Congress can hike the minimum wage, fight drug companies, up college aid, and build union-spec windmills? This does not compute. The core Democratic agenda remains tightly tied to the party's old labor union backbone and academic Left brain-trust. There is nothing particularly 2006 about its to-do list.
Given all these holes in the Democratic front, losing Congress to them would be a repudiation of Republicanism far beyond what the raw numbers might suggest. The Dems will have won a huge victory with next to nothing in their playbook and set the stage for a truly re-aligning election in 2008.