Dems plan to rearrange deck chairs

The Democrats’ strategy for this year’s midterm elections has been obvious for some time – paint the Republicans as the party of “no.” But that status is a liability only if the “no” comes in response to proposals that are popular. To date, this has not been the case. So now, as the Washington Post reports, the Dems are planning to make Republicans vote on “a series of modest bills identified as popular with the public.”
This explains the decision of Harry Reid to propose a pared-down jobs bill. And the Post reports that the Dems will soon force votes on a bill to lift the antitrust exemption now enjoyed by insurance companies, measures to assist small businesses, a proposal to extend unemployment benefits, and one to levy fees on Wall Street banks that received bailout money.
This strategy is the correct one for the Democrats to adopt. However, I doubt that it will bear much fruit. At a macro level, the election of 2010 will be a referendum on the Democrats, not the Republicans; that’s just how it is when one party is fully ascendant. If unemployment remains at anything like current levels, voters aren’t likely to support Democratic candidates merely because Republicans voted “no” on various “small ball” legislation. Moreover, vulnerable incumbent Democrats will be running against candidates who, in nearly all instances, will not have voted one way or another on the various proposals the Dems plan to put forward.
At the micro level, the Democrats may find members of their caucus opposing legislation that has been watered down with the hope of putting Republicans in the box. For example, Senate liberals have balked at Reid’s efforts to produce a pared-down jobs bill, preferring the more expansive legislation developed in the House. And when it comes to truly antiseptic legislation, Republicans can escape the “box” by voting “yes.”
But the biggest problem the Democrats now face is captured by the cliche that you only get one chance to make a first impression. This Congress and this President chose to make their first impression by trying to ram through highly transformative left-liberal legislation with little or no regard for what Republicans thought. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse that impression by proposing low profile legislation; such legislation, by definition, will not make much of an impression.
That’s why President Obama’s overture to Republicans on health care is so important. This is one issue to which the electorate is still paying attention. And the proposed meeting would be televised. But the problem for the Democrats here is that the public’s first (and second and third) impression is that the Democrats’ approach to reform is too drastic and poorly thought-out. Thus, the Republican line — that we need to start over — is not likely to cast it in a bad light.
The bottom line is that, unless the employment picture improves significantly by the fall, the Democrats’ latest legislative strategy — and any other one they might devise — will amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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