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For Democrats willing to see what's before their eyes, the nightmare came into sharper focus over the last week. Another 1994 might be in the offing.
Back then, the beginning of the end came on a procedural vote. A Democratic majority that had held the House for four decades lost a routine party-line vote on a "rule," a basic measure allowing it to control the House floor.
The August vote hit like a neutron bomb. Superficially, nothing changed: The Democrats still had a majority; they quickly re-established control and passed the underlying legislation, a liberal crime bill. Yet Republicans exulted at the whiff of legislative revolution: The Democrats had begun to lose their grip.
Scott Brown's victory last week in Massachusetts is the equivalent of that momentous vote. Democrats still have an 18-seat advantage in the Senate and a nearly 80-seat edge in the House. But the Brown win ends the heroic phase of the Obama era, which lasted precisely a year.
It is still 10 months until the midterm elections, and no one can know how events will play out before then. Will the job market revive? Can President Obama find traction? Yet this much is clear: Obama and the Democrats have done their utmost to create the predicate for a historic wipeout in November. They have put the House in jeopardy, and the consuming question of American politics for the rest of the year is whether they can pull it back.
You could say that it's January 1994 all over again -- but the level of the Democratic peril didn't become clear until much later that year. When Rep. Dick Armey told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that spring that Republicans might take the majority in the fall, he was practically laughed out of the room. Democrats have entered the red zone this year much sooner, and much more obviously.
Forewarned by Clinton's nightmare, Obama set out to avoid his predecessor's mistakes, especially on health care: He'd be more deferential to Congress; he'd buy off the special interests, keeping Harry and Louise on his side. That is, he learned every lesson but the most important one: Don't support a radical overhaul of American health care as embodied in a sprawling monstrosity of a bill.
Obama's health-care bill has been at least as unpopular as Clinton's. For most of the year, the Democrats poured almost all their energy into it -- even though the economy is the top concern of voters. They kept at it even as public opinion put up a flashing red light. And they resorted to legislative sausage-making so rank it could have been a scene from a PETA anti-meat video.
In short, the push on health care has made the Democrats seem out of touch, imperious and gross -- a corrupt establishment ripe for the toppling after all of four years in power. An unemployment rate of 10 percent, well above the 5.6 percent rate of November 1994, only exacerbates their vulnerability.
All the key conditions are there for a debacle:
* Is the president down in the polls? Check. Obama is far above President Harry Truman's 33 percent approval rating when Democrats lost 55 seats in 1946. But he's been trending downward. President Bill Clinton was roughly even at 45 to 46 percent approval in November 1994. By the end of the weekend, Gallup had Obama roughly even, too, at 48 to 47, his highest disapproval rating yet.
* Has the majority picked up so many seats recently that a correction seems inevitable? Check. When a party has a big tide in congressional elections, it tends to recede. The GOP pickup of 47 seats in 1966 came after Dems swept to an overwhelming 295 seats in the House in 1964. Over the last two elections, Democrats have picked up 54 seats; their total of 257 after the 2008 election is well above their roughly 220-seat average over the last 10 years.
* Are there bunches of Democrats representing conservative districts? Check. The '94 GOP sweep was possible because so many Democrats held naturally Republican ground, particularly in the South. As a result of their big gains in 2006 and '08, Democrats hold nearly 50 seats won both by Bush in 2004 and McCain in 2008, and more than 80 that were won by one of them, reports electoral maven Charlie Cook.
More disturbing than all this for Democrats has to be their erosion among independents and the middle class: They've alienated the great, broad middle of American politics.
The Rasmussen poll had Scott Brown winning independents 73 to 25 percent, even better than the 2-1 GOP edge among independents in last fall's Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races. Republicans won't match those numbers nationally in November -- but if they basically reverse Obama's 52 percent to 44 percent win among independents from 2008, they'll make major gains.
As John Judis, the brilliant political writer for the liberal New Republic points out, Obama has seen his standing among people making $30,000 to $75,000 flop upside down over the last year, from 63 to 17 approval in Pew polls to 53 to 35 percent disapproval. His standing is roughly similar among people over 65 years old and working-class whites -- key constituencies in the midterms.
Mechanics will matter, of course: retirements, fund-raising, recruiting. But if the current environment holds, Democrats will be hard-pressed to hold back the tide no matter what their level of technical proficiency.
How does Obama recover? With the canary bedraggled and lifeless in the coal mine in January, he has ample notice of the danger. But he seems willing to do everything -- reconstitute his political team from 2008, adopt fighting rhetoric, vilify the banks -- except move to the center.
On health care, the ox is in the ditch, as LBJ might say. There's no good, easy way to revive the current bill and Republicans savor every day Democrats will spend trying to do it.
The GOP doesn't mind being called "the party of 'no' " -- in fact, it relishes the label, given the unpopularity of Obama's domestic policies. But that can't be its entire message: The party will need to sketch out a lowest-common-denominator affirmative agenda, in the spirit of 1994's "Contract with America."
The importance of the "Contract" can be exaggerated: It wasn't a detailed governing document. Instead, it promised simply to bring 10 popular initiatives to a vote. But it gave Republicans a dimension beyond mere anti-Clintonism.
Scott Brown and Bob McDonnell in Virginia proved such terrific candidates because they opposed Obama policies while cultivating an unthreatening, solution-oriented tone. They point the way for Republicans nationally.
For Republicans hoping for a repeat of their 1994 triumph, at this early juncture it's so far, so good -- and Thank you, Presi dent Obama.
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