By picking Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney has managed something rare, for him: He’s made everyone feel good. Conservatives are thrilled, of course — they’ll have the “big choice” campaign they’ve been demanding from Romney. The Obama campaign is ecstatic — now they can more easily tie Romney to the unpopular Republican Congress and its determination (in last year’s debt ceiling fight and in the “Ryan Budget”) to force deep cuts to Medicare to balance the budget without raising taxes.But don’t overlook the celebration at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, which faces an uphill struggle to convert dissatisfaction with House Republicans into a “wave” that could reverse their 2010 disaster and put Nancy Pelosi back in the Speaker’s chair.
Though Congress is dismally unpopular — just 12% approval in a CBS/New York Times poll last month — that doesn’t necessarily translate to the local level, and many swing voters can’t even say accurately which party controls the House. In late June, veteran handicapper Charlie Cook dismissed Democratic hopes of a fourth “wave” election (following the upheavals of 2006, 2008 and 2010), as Democrats would need to pick up 25 seats to regain control of the House. Redistricting setbacks steepened the Democrats’ odds, and Cook rates the party’s congressional hopes “a pretty unlikely scenario, absent a strong wind at their backs.” (An Obama landslide or sudden economic recovery might fit the bill, but neither seem likely.)
New York Times handicapper Nate Silver came to a similar conclusion, calling Republicans “reasonably clear favourites to maintain their majority.” Recent polls show no advantage for Democrats in “generic” preference for Congress (asking voters which party they’d pick in the next election, without naming candidates). Silver thinks they need an edge of three or four points on that measure to win back the House. Like Cook, he sees little sign of a wave, and expects local factors (which wash in both directions) to decide House races in swing districts — unless the DCCC gets a big break.
Mitt Romney may have just given the DCCC that big break.
Obama hasn’t always been House Democrats’ best friend. In last year’s debt ceiling fight, he seemed to throw them under the bus, right after their Republican colleagues had done them the huge favour of going on record by voting for the Ryan Budget, with its drastic cuts to Medicare — a symbolic step, since the measure would be doomed in the Democratic Senate — thereby fueling their hopes of a 2012 comeback. Still believing he’d get points for bipartisanship, Obama muddied their message by offering up his own, milder cuts to Medicare, in a deal with Speaker John Boehner that soon unravelled. And while Obama has more recently delighted House Democrats by finding his partisan voice — most of them relish the fight with Romney — there has been no illusion that the Obama campaign would bend its message or on-the-ground tactics to win the House as well as a second term.
Now, Obama and the DCCC will march in lockstep. With Romney’s commitment not to weasel out of his past support for Ryan’s budget, as one might have expected given his track record, Obama will make Ryan and his Medicare cuts even more central than he would have. Courtesy of his ads, politically disengaged undecided voters will get a crash course in recent congressional history. The Medicare issue has been potent for decades — it worked wonders for Clinton in 1996 — and in a best-case scenario for Democrats, it could boost the lead Obama now seems to hold into a decisive rather than narrow victory.
Thanks to Mitt Romney, House races now stand a much better chance of being nationalized, counter to Cook’s and Silver’s expectations.
Of course, idealists on both sides think a fight of substance over the direction of the country is one they will win, which is actually inspiring in a goofy way. Pundits have been wailing about an election that seemed to be about nothing but political tactics at a time of national crisis. Now the results will mean something, and will be more likely to settle the unbridgeable gap between Democratic and Republican visions on debt, spending and taxes — the ones at stake in next winter’s fiscal cliff showdown — than if Obama won simply by “disqualifying” Romney, producing no ripples in congressional contests. And if Romney and Ryan win, their mandate will be clear.
It would be ironic if Ryan’s Wisconsin seat, now added to the list of swing districts, were the one to decide which party controls Congress next year.
Peter Feld is a former Democratic pollster.
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