In 2008, Barack Obama provided a great deal of electoral lift to Democrats running for Congress, both through the force of his endorsements and by inspiring high turnout rates. Democrats expanded their majorities in both chambers thanks to their association with Obama. In 2010, though, Democrats have rapidly retreated from links to Obama and may want the White House to keep an arms-length distance in their re-election efforts in the midterms:
As President Obama’s approval ratings sag and the mood of voters sours, some Democratic congressional candidates are distancing themselves from the White House, with the back-channel blessing of party officials.
The candidates are positioning themselves as independent voices no less frustrated with the Obama administration than people back home. …
Far from discouraging an independent stance, the White House political operation and the Democratic congressional leadership are tacitly putting out word that the strategy may be a useful one, according to party campaign operatives.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview: “Our candidates need to reflect the values and priorities of their districts. And that means on some issues they’ll support the Obama administration’s position, and on some issues they’ll oppose it.”
Except that voters aren’t quite as stupid as Van Hollen assumes. Most of the forty-nine House Democrats running for re-election in districts John McCain won in 2008 voted repeatedly for the Obama agenda in 2009. They can now claim on the campaign trail to be flinty-eyed independents ready to oppose “some” of the Obama agenda, but if they’ve already voted for Porkulus, cap-and-trade, or ObamaCare, their claims will be as empty as their credibility.
In the midterms, voters will consider this a referendum on Obama’s policies and Nancy Pelosi’s leadership. Sending Democrats back to Congress means Pelosi will control the agenda on the floor and Obama will get the votes to pass his expansionist projects. Not only will that result from an election where Democrats remain in control, both the White House and Pelosi would claim that as a mandate afterward.
Not all Democrats think that the problem will get solved by having candidates simply eschew bad policy on the stump. Robert Toricelli, who once headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says that the only way Democrats can avoid electoral disaster at the midterms is to actually stop offering bad policy and start listening to voters:
Midterm elections are invariably a referendum on the president’s performance, said former Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, who once chaired the Democrats’ Senate election committee.
“Everybody is in one boat,” Torricelli said in an interview. “I’d recommend correcting the course of the boat rather than swimming away from it.”
Neither Obama nor Pelosi seem inclined to change course now, absent a massive loss in November, and so the Democrats will continue steaming towards the iceberg without nearly enough lifeboats. The increasing distance that Democrats have to put between themselves and Obama, Pelosi, and Harry Reid should have set off warning bells long ago, but it appears no one is paying enough attention to notice.
Republicans only need to flip 40 seats to take control of the House. If McCain won 49 districts now represented by Democrats in a year where Obama provided substantial coattails, it doesn’t seem unlikely that the collapsing approval ratings for Obama and Democrats will result in a power change this November — and Obama will be forced to cut deals with the GOP in the last two years of his term.