Under pressure, the Democrats are cracking. On both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, there is a realization that Nancy Pelosi's hold on the speakership is in true jeopardy; that losing control of the Senate is not out of the question; and that time, once the Democrats' best friend, is now their mortal enemy. Since January, when Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat, the President's party has tried to downplay in public what its pollsters have been saying in private: that Obama's alienation of independents and white voters, along with the enthusiasm gap between the right and the left, means that Republicans are on a trajectory to pick up massive numbers of House and Senate seats, perhaps even to regain control of Congress.
Evidence of the pervasiveness of this view: Sunday's New York Times op-ed page, which featured a series of short essays from leading Democratic and Republican strategists about how Obama could go about staging a political comeback, focused not on November's midterms but on 2012 an indication that Washington conventional wisdom has already written off prospects of Democrats sustaining a majority in the legislature.
What has kept the easily panicked denizens of Capitol Hill from open revolt until now was a shared confidence that there was still plenty of time to turn things around, and that the White House had a strategy to do just that.
The two-part scheme was pretty straightforward. First, Democrats planned a number of steps to head off, or at least soften, the anti-Washington, anti-incumbent, anti-Obama sentiment that cost them the Massachusetts seat. Pass health care, and other measures to demonstrate that Democrats could get things done for the middle class; continue to foster those fabled green shoots on the economy, harvesting the positive impact of the massive economic stimulus bill passed early in the Administration; heighten the contrast between the two parties by delivering on Wall Street reform and a campaign-funding law to counteract January's controversial Supreme Court decision. Use all of those elements to contrast the Democrats' policies under Obama with the Republicans' policies under Bush, rather than allow the midterms to be a referendum on the incumbent party.
The second strand of the Democrats' plan was more prosaic and mechanical. Recruit strong candidates for open seats. Leverage the White House and congressional majorities to raise more money than the other side. Make mischief by playing up the divisions between the Tea Party and the more traditional elements of the Republican Party, in part to increase the chances that more extreme, less electable candidates edge out moderates in GOP primary battles. Do extensive opposition research and targeted messaging in the fall to delegitimize Republican candidates in the minds of centrist voters. Coordinate below the radar with labor unions, environmentalists and other allies on get-out-the-vote efforts, focusing on young, nonwhite and first-time voters who came out for Obama in 2008.
Robert Gibbs' now-famous acknowledgement on Meet the Press on July 11 that Republicans were in a position to win back control of the House sparked a notable outbreak of hostility between the White House and congressional Democrats for two reasons. First, it forced Pelosi & Co. to recognize that the first part of their plan is failing. Public and private polling suggests that anxiety over the lack of jobs and anger over the big-spending ways of the Administration will trump the merits of the stimulus spending, health care reform and the financial regulation bill in voters' minds. Neither the economy nor voters' perceptions are likely to be turned around by Election Day. Congressional Democrats were aware of this hard reality before Gibbs opened his mouth, but having him say it out loud was apparently too much for those on the Hill to bear.
Democrats also fear that Gibbs' admission will impact the flow of donations from corporate interests and lobbyists, who tend to want to bet on the party more likely to win the majority. Open musing about a speaker John Boehner, House Democrats believe, will drive mercenary donors to shift their support to the GOP. The huge fundraising hauls by GOP Senate candidates just reported for the second quarter of the year were not, of course, the result of Gibbs' statement, but the momentum suggested by those figures could be hypercharged by White House pessimism.
To be sure, the White House plans to continue to try to impact the national environment by touting its accomplishments, blaming Republicans for stopping other measures, and railing against the Bush legacy. They will also continue to work aggressively on the mechanics of victory, hoping to save their incumbents with their customized, race-by-race tactics. Vice President Joe Biden on ABC News' This Week crowed about Senate majority leader Harry Reid's back-from-the-dead strength in his Nevada race, credited largely to Reid's shaky Republican opponent, who landed her nomination in part because of Democratic shenanigans. Democrats hope to replicate that micro-success to save other seats.
After days of public intraparty acrimony, a cold peace has been restored, with Democrats all around saying they share the same goals and strategy for November. But if the party's poll numbers stay bad and it loses big, expect a fundamental difference between the White House and congressional Democrats to emerge in sharp relief after Nov. 2.
Even if the midterms end the Democrats' one-party rule, the President may well believe that his accomplishments during his first two years in office were worth it. But it's a sure bet that the vanquished House Democrats who lose their jobs and their gavels won't share that assessment.