By former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) - 01/24/12 11:00 AM EST
The State of the Union speech in a presidential election year is all politics. In fact, with the president now running campaign ads in eight states and Republicans attacking him full throttle, it is time to offer a little historical perspective on where things might go.
The election is going to be decided by independent voters who are uneasy with both parties, the president and Congress.
For Republicans, the 2010 dynamic was not for “them.” It was a vote against one-party governance — a check on Obama rather than giving him a blank check. The GOP brand is still hurting as it now shares some of the burdens of governing. Independents need to be courted, not put off by “playing to the base.”
Base politics are important in November, and essential in primaries, but independents will decide who wins the general election.
The president will be better off following the Clinton ’96 model rather than the Truman ’48 model.
Cooperation rather than confrontation is what American swing voters want. They want leadership, not demagoguery and solutions, not diatribes. Like President Clinton in ’96, Obama saw his party take a bath in the midterms. Clinton spent 1995 struggling with a hostile Congress (remember the government shutdowns?), but pivoted in 1996 to enact parts of the Contract with America, including welfare reform. The result? Both he and the Congress were reelected.
President Truman faced a different task. The 80th Congress was solidly Republican and conservative (Southern Democrats helped override his veto of Taft Hartley). Truman also faced a fractured party with independent candidacies from Henry Wallace, his former vice president, on the left and Strom Thurmond on the right. He called the “Do Nothing” Congress back into session (it was far more productive than this Congress) and dared them to enact Dewey’s platform.
The difference today is that the Democrats control the Senate (or, more accurately, preside over it), the economy is far worse than 1948 and the president has a united rather than a fractured base. Running against Congress is risky when the GOP standard bearer can do the same thing. Romney never served in Congress and is more truly an outsider. He has a greater ability to pivot and run against Washington.
Congressional Republicans are more likely to succeed by finding ways to cooperate with the president than by sticking it to him.
This is not 2010, when the Democrats controlled everything. The GOP now has some responsibility to govern and some culpability for adverse outcomes. Recent history has shown that when presidents are reelected, Congresses of the opposite party are reelected, too. In 1956, when President Eisenhower was swept to a second term, Democrats actually picked up seats in the House. In the 1972 Nixon landslide, the GOP lost Senate seats (remember a 29-year-old Joe Biden beating Caleb Boggs?) with no appreciable gains in the House. And the 1984, 49-state President Reagan landslide saw few congressional inroads for his party.
Traditionally, when presidents are reelected, people are not in a “throw the bums out” mood, so Congresses gets reelected too.
Turning 2012 into a confrontational Armageddon will continue the recent trend of making our congressional elections “parliamentary elections,” instead of the traditional series of “all politics is local” referenda. We have experienced three consecutive wave elections. There has been significant ideological sorting of the parties, and that trend appears to be continuing, abetted by new media models and campaign finance rules (which have moved money from the candidates and parties to outside interest groups and super-PACs).
For Democrats to take 25 seats, they will need a wave. No presidential reelection in recent memory has yielded a 25-seat gain for the president’s party, with the exception of 1964, which was not technically a reelection. Continued polarization and obstruction could create such a wave.
No one can predict where the economy will be next fall. Gas prices, the eurozone financial crisis and unemployment are variables over which the body politic has little control.
Increased polarization and confrontation have considered risks for both parties. The party that can win the independents will control the ballot outcome, and the respective party bases are not a comfortable fit with those independent voters. So, playing to the base, polarizing the electorate and continuing to blame the other party is mutually risky.
With anemic ratings of Congress and the president’s high negatives, a frustrated electorate may not perform according to the choreography of party consultants. The appearance of fiddling while Washington burns is not only politically jeopardizing, it is bad for the country.
Former Rep. Davis (R-Va.) served in the House from 1995-2008 and was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1998-2002.