During the 1996 and 1998 election cycles, Democrats picked up a net of 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is far more than in any cycle since. I was the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during those years, so I am often asked about the appropriate strategy for House Democrats this Fall.
For months people have been clamoring for a detailed statement of what Democrats would do if they are successful in taking over the House. This issue has been raised by the press, Republican critics and by some Democrats.
Some party leaders have attempted to fill the void. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid issued a detailed position statement earlier this summer. Sen. Hillary Clinton, a potential 2008 presidential candidate, issued her own position paper on key issues recently.
All this is important but, after a great deal of thought, I believe this year’s Congressional elections will turn on two basic statements for Democrats:
1. We are not them (the Republicans) and
2. The country desperately needs someone to serve as a check on the excesses and misdeeds of the Bush administration.
Both are variations on the same theme.
The “we are not them theme” was recently discussed by everyone’s favorite Washington political analyst, Charlie Cook, in a July 22 column for the National Journal.
To quote Cook, “For all the talk about Democrats needing to ‘be for something,’ a stronger case can be made that the Democrats should just stay out of the way and let events take their course. If Democrats prevail on November 7th….it will be because they are not Republicans and because people voted against Republicans.”
This was also echoed by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who suggested recently that the Democrats should reprise the 1946 Republican slogan (“Had Enough? Vote Republican”) which led to a Republican take-over of Congress.
It goes something like this: Republicans have run up large deficits after inheriting a significant surplus from President Bill Clinton. Republicans have opposed an expansion of valuable stem cell research which could lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and a variety of other conditions affecting millions of Americans. Republicans have pushed for tax cuts for the wealthy while giving crumbs to the middle class. Republicans have made a terrible mess out of the immigration issue. Republicans have given tax breaks to big oil companies while gasoline prices continue to climb. In others words, it’s time to give the other side a chance.
Closely related to this argument is the idea that divided government (Republicans in control of the executive branch and Democrats in control of at least one house of Congress) really does serve the country, particularly when the executive branch is acting in a high-handed, autocratic way.
Examples of this include:
--The poor intelligence provided by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war
--The incompetent manner in which the administration has handled the occupation of Iraq
--Bush administration efforts to spy on phone calls and email traffic of American citizens inside the United States without a search warrant in the name of fighting terrorism
--Bush efforts to try prisoners being held in Guantanamo in tribunals deemed to be illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court
--Bungling by the administration in the response to Hurricane Katrina
--The mishandled Dubai ports deal
--Multi-billion dollar no-bid contracts to administration favorites to carry out reconstruction work in Iraq.
Should Democrats take control of the House or Senate, they will be able to conduct “oversight” hearings into activities run by the executive branch….not to punish or embarrass the White House, but to insure basic accountability. Witnesses would have to testify under oath and you can anticipate that a number of tough but fair questions would be asked.
Right now, there is little incentive for the party of the president to engage in aggressive Congressional oversight. However, some Republicans in Congress have started asking the administration tough questions in recent months, partially as a way of protecting themselves from voter backlash against unpopular policies this Fall.
Clearly it will be helpful to Democrats to advance specific ideas about major topics such as energy policy and the future of health care for the millions of uninsured in our country. However, it is possible that voters will not really be listening carefully to the specifics.
This may be the type of election which will be determined by the general mood of the electorate rather than specific policy positions by either party.
“We are not them” may be the most powerful thing that the Democrats can offer the voters this Fall...and it may just work.
My previous column about the campaign of Kinky Friedman for Texas governor was written before recent polls showed an upturn for Kinky. Here is the most recent polling data (which could change tomorrow in this volatile race):
A July 24 Rasmussen poll puts Perry (40 percent), Strayhorn (20 percent), Kinky (19 percent) and Bell (13 percent)
A July 24 WSJ/Zogby puts Perry (38.3 percent), Bell (20.8 percent), Kinky (20.7 percent) and Strayhorn (11 percent).
Kinky ran third in both polls. I stand by my prediction that Kinky ultimately won’t come close to winning, but he is doing better than I originally anticipated. Thanks to FOX website readers for calling my attention to the most recent polling data.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.