Democrats' 2010 Problem: They Can't Run On Their Record

Democrats' Catch-22: They can't rest on their laurels but voters don't want them to do more.

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With election season fast approaching, House Democrats are finding themselves in a Catch-22. Do they sit back and rest on their accomplishments in hopes that voter ire towards Washington will cool? Or should they continue their torrid legislative pace in hopes of getting the economy back on track? The former risks appearing like do-nothings in the face of an ongoing financial crisis, the latter risks continued backlash over big-government, big-spending solutions. There appears to be no right answer for this batch of unabashed Keynesians.

[See a slide show of 5 key issues in the 2010 elections.]

E.J. Dionne, columnist for the Washington Post, argued that Democrats must fight.

Democrats wonder why the polls find an "enthusiasm gap" that suggests their supporters will sit around grumpily in November while Republicans flood the polling places.

It might help if voters saw President Obama and his party in Congress fighting for something going into these elections (including their record on healthcare and financial reform) rather than reacting, retrenching and retreating.

Dionne is right. Democrats would be wise to avoid being labeled a “do-nothing” Congress, a moniker that doomed Republican majorities in 1948 and 2006. While Democrats may argue that they can hang their hat on many legislative accomplishments, jobs are the sole issue on many voters’ minds. Fail to live up to your “jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra and you can bet Americans will begin to question what exactly Washington has been spending its time doing. Democrats are already trailing badly in generic ballot tests and voter enthusiasm numbers. With high unemployment levels likely to endure through November, if Democrats are to have any chance at improving these numbers, they must take the initiative to do something.

The problem in Dionne’s argument is the use of the word “might.” Qualifiers like that generally don’t go over well when asking congressmen to gamble their election chances for a piece of legislation. This becomes all the more true when you consider all the failed “mights” that Democrats are staring at in the rearview mirror. The stimulus might have created 3.5 million jobs, turned the economy around, and given Democrats some unbeatable talking points for November. It didn’t. Instead it’s June, 16 months after the stimulus bill passed, and the economy continues to shed jobs. The healthcare bill might have lowered costs for individuals, decreased the government’s healthcare spending, and put a sizeable dent in the future deficits. It didn’t. Rather, the passed reforms will raise projected government spending on healthcare and place “ tremendous pressure on the federal budget.”

[See a slide show of 10 things that are (and aren't) in the healthcare bill.]

Given the PR failures of their past legislation, do Democrats really want to risk giving the opposition more ammo when debt and deficits are likely to be key voting cues in the elections? A new Marist poll released Wednesday suggests not. The poll found that only 38 percent of people said the president’s policies were changing the country for the better--the lowest rating the president has received on the question.

[See a slide show of the 10 keys to an Obama comeback.]

It is hard to get Democrats on board with passing more of the Obama administration’s policies if voters generally believe they are making our situation worse. The situation is akin to political quicksand--better to stay still and possibly survive than to flail around in panic and sink into the muck.

Trailing in the polls, Democrats clearly must do something to sway voters. But much of what they have done has alienated rather than attracted Americans. It’s a no win situation for a party that could do no wrong just two years ago.