A Veto-Proof Congress?

Posted: Mar 28, 2008 12:01 AM
A Veto-Proof Congress?

There are dozens of reasons for John McCain to be gloomy this spring. So many of the structural factors at work in this election redound to his disadvantage. To name just a few: 1) he seeks to succeed a very unpopular two-term president of the same party, 2) he is a member of a body (Congress) whose approval ratings are even lower than those of the president, 3) poll after poll suggests that Republican identification among voters is plunging, 4) the economy is skidding, 5) money is cascading into Democratic sacks and only trickling into Republican hands, and 6) large majorities (66 percent in a recent poll) say they think the country is on the wrong track -- a number that does not bode well for the party holding the White House.

And yet, McCain is riding high because the two Democratic front-runners are chewing each other's ankles and actually drawing blood. And there is every reason to believe that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will hold their mutual death grip for several more weeks or even months -- pointing out for voters the other's unfitness to serve as president. It's a long way to November, but it is certainly possible now to envision how McCain could come out on top.

What seems less foreseeable is a concomitant revival in the fortunes of Congressional Republicans. While national attention has focused on the presidential race, a sinkhole has been opening under the Republicans in Congress. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its Senate counterpart have reportedly raised $66 million for this election cycle so far. The Republican committees have raised $20 million. While the seesaw is somewhat righted by fundraising by the Republican National Committee ($22 million versus only $3 million for the Democrats), the rest of the picture is pretty alarming for Republicans.

As Jonathan Salant of Bloomberg news reports, Democrats had more cash on hand at the start of 2008 in 31 of the 41 most competitive House and Senate races. And Republican House members keep doing something that increases the Democrats' chances -- resigning. A total of 26 incumbent Republican members of Congress have announced their intention not to seek reelection this year, whereas only five Democrats have done the same. This almost reaches the record set in 1952, when 27 incumbents left the Capital. Former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert left his office midway through his term. In a special election to fill his seat in a Republican district that voted 55 percent for Bush in 2004, Democrat Bill Foster won with 52 percent of the vote.

The public holds Congress in low esteem, but this is not apparently harming the party in control as much as it Republicans. An ABC News Washington Post poll found that 54 percent of respondents preferred to see Democrats maintain control of Congress in 2008. The current balance is 51-49 in the Senate and 233-198 (four vacant) in the House.

Among the Senate seats Republicans may have trouble holding are the open seats in Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado. Also considered vulnerable because their states are trending more liberal are incumbents John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, and Susan Collins of Maine. In order to obtain the magic number of 60 -- a filibuster-proof majority -- the Democrats will have to win nine contests. That's a tall order, but far from out of the question.

Some of the talk about excitement on the Democratic side -- particularly the focus on huge disparities in voter turnout -- is simply an artifact of this year's close contest between Clinton and Obama. Voters in many primaries who hadn't shown up in past years did so in 2008 because their votes really mattered. On the other hand, the party identification and fundraising numbers are sobering.

It would be nearly impossible for the minority party in Congress to run on its own platform (like the Contract with America) in a presidential year. Republicans therefore find themselves in the peculiar position of having to hope for salvation from a "maverick" who has never been much of a party man. But in this strange year, anything is possible.

Correction: In a recent column I misidentified Barack Obama's church. It is Trinity United Church of Christ.

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