Control of Congress: Winning by losing or losing by winning in November

Bruce Bartlett
|
Posted: May 23, 2006 12:04 AM

A number of political analysts are saying that enough congressional seats are now in play to give Democrats a realistic chance of retaking control of the House of Representatives this fall. Interestingly, many Republicans don't necessarily think that is altogether a bad idea, while many Democrats are not so sure they really want the prize just yet.

There is deep, deep frustration in both parties at the moment. The Republican Party's conservative base is disgusted by profligate spending, failure to control the borders and a general sense that its elected representatives are treating the cesspool of Washington like a hot tub. The Democratic Party's liberal base believes its leaders are gutless and feckless, afraid or unwilling to confront the White House on Iraq, torture, wiretaps, tax giveaways to the rich and other issues.

Republicans are hoping to calm their base by getting an immigration bill passed and forcing votes on red-meat issues like prohibiting gay marriage and repealing the estate tax permanently. They also plan to bring up some high-profile judicial appointments for votes in order to remind conservatives how important it is to keep control of the confirmation process.

The point on judges is well-taken, but of course that only requires control of the Senate, and it is highly unlikely that Democrats will be able to win enough seats to gain a majority there this November. Moreover, even if Democrats get control of the House, they will almost certainly have a very, very thin margin. The leadership may well be at the mercy of the few remaining Democratic congressmen from the South who occasionally vote with Republicans.

If Democrats get control of the House, they are also going to be beset by pressures from their base to immediately launch massive investigations of every suspected wrongdoing President Bush, Vice President Cheney and every other administration official may have committed over the previous six years. Many Democrats are salivating at the thought of being able to subpoena administration officials and perhaps even bring up articles of impeachment -- payback for Bill Clinton.

Democratic leaders know that this sort of talk turns off moderates and energizes the Republican base. Consequently, John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, who would likely chair the House Judiciary Committee in a Democratic Congress, recently wrote an op-ed article in The Washington Post denying that he would push to impeach President Bush. But this only depresses the "Daily Kos" crowd and makes them wonder what the point of Democratic control of the House is. (Dailykos.com is a Website popular among extreme left-wing Democrats.)

At the same time, some Democratic strategists are wondering whether control of the House might play into the Republicans' hands in 2008. They figure that Democrats won't be able to do much to advance their agenda, but will give Republicans a foil and an excuse for their own failures. This could end up helping Republicans keep the White House in 2008 and possibly retake control of the House.

On the other hand, strategists say, winning a few seats this fall, but not enough for control, might be optimum for the Democrats. They would bloody the Republicans, embolden the Democratic base and put them in a better position to win it all in 2008 -- the White House and Congress.

But even that possibility worries some Democrats. They fear that retaking the White House before the Iraq War is resolved will force them to do all the dirty work of cleaning up the mess. They worry that the Democratic Party could end up with all the blame for a war it didn't start in the same way Republicans ended up with most of the blame for Vietnam.

Other Democrats worry that the fiscal disaster Republicans have created will require politically unpopular tax increases and spending cuts during the next president's term. They note that the first baby boomers will qualify for Social Security in 2008 and Medicare in 2011. Better to let the Republicans fix this problem, too, before regaining power, some Democrats argue.

Undoubtedly, the vast majority of Democrats think that if they can regain power, they should. It's hard to win by losing in politics. Nevertheless, there are those in both parties who always think it is better to lose for principle than win, and sometimes they can make a difference.

A more important concern for both parties has to do with turnout, which is a function of voter intensity in off-year elections. Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 mainly because so many Democrats sat out the election. Since it is mainly the ideologues that vote in such elections and since turnout is lower than in presidential elections, each party's wings are more crucial to the outcome.

In the end, the election may turn on which party's base is less dispirited this year.