When Congress stays in session during the dog days of a Washington summer, rebellion is always bubbling just beneath the surface. And sure enough, it erupted at a caucus of House Democrats one night last week, triggered by an injudicious comment from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Gibbs made the terrible mistake of affirming what all the Democrats know to be true, namely, that the combination of high unemployment, oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico and growing casualties in Afghanistan has so aggravated the voters that control of the House is seriously at issue.
Gibbs was denounced for telling television interviewers that the 39 House seats Republicans would need to take over to become a majority are certainly in play. For his candor, Gibbs was roundly roasted by some of those who could well be the victims of such an upheaval.
The president himself hied up to Capitol Hill to make amends, but the underlying ferment remains. One White House aide told me, “They (the House members) really hate the Senate, but we made it easy for them to take it out on us.” The fact is that the Democrats are out of sorts — frustrated by the effectiveness of the Republican opposition that makes it so hard to pass bills in the Senate, and battered too by the inability of Washington to solve any of the big problems facing the country.
They were greeted on their return from their Independence Day holiday with a Washington Post-ABC News poll reporting that voters think, by a margin of 51 percent to 43 percent, that it is more important to have a Republican majority in the next Congress to act as a check on President Obama’s policies, rather than a Democratic majority to support him.
Unless Obama can turn that psychology around, the Democrats could well be on their way to another 1994-style defeat.
I was sent an advance copy of another poll, this one done for the Third Way, a leading moderate think tank, by the Benenson Strategy Group, which has worked for past Obama campaigns. It suggests one possible way of shifting the odds.
This rests on reviving, one more time, the favorite Obama tactic of 2008: Run against George Bush, even though he is not on the ballot.
Unprompted, only 25 percent in this survey said they think that if Republicans regain a majority, it will signal a return to Bush’s economic policies. By comparison, 65 percent say a Republican Congress would promote “a new economic agenda that is different” from Bush’s.
The difference is dramatic when Bush enters the equation. Obama’s economic agenda is preferred over Bush’s by 49 percent to 34 percent. But a generic conservative approach, pitting a leader “who will start from scratch with new ideas to shrink government, cut taxes and grow the economy” beats one committed to sticking with Obama’s policies, 64 percent to 30 percent.
In the absence of any clear Republican platform for the midterm election like the 1994 Contract with America, it is hard to say what Republicans would actually do with a congressional majority. We know what they have voted against — all the major bills Obama has sponsored to cure the Great Recession and regulate Wall Street and rework health care.
In a memo accompanying the poll, the Third Way authors claim that Republicans would echo Bush’s approach of cutting taxes and minimizing government regulation.
They argue that by labeling a future Republican Congress as a Bush Congress, Democrats can beat the opposition back. But I am not so certain. One question in the Third Way poll asked which path voters prefer to jump-start private-sector job creation and economic growth — new government investments or cutting taxes on business?
Cutting taxes on business won 54 percent to 32 percent. This sounds to me like Ronald Reagan returning to whomp Barack Obama. Maybe all the Republicans have to do is to reject the Bush label and bring Reagan back for an encore.