Josh Kurtz: Death Knell for Democrats?

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With the 2012 presidential election suddenly dialed up in the past few days, many Democrats take solace in the fact that Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and Herman Cain combined for two-thirds of the vote in the Iowa Republican straw poll the other day.

They shouldn’t.

Similarly, optimistic Democrats, while acknowledging President Obama’s own recent drop in the polls, happily point out that the Republican Party was at its lowest standing – ever – in the most recent Gallup Poll. The latest generic Congressional ballot similarly shows Democrats preferred by 7 points over the GOP. And Obama this week is going out on the road, ready, at long last, we're told, to fight back.

Big deal. The polls at this stage are meaningless. Obama's partisan pugnacity seems to be too little, too late. The Democratic Party as we know it is very close to death’s door.

Yes, voters may be at their “throw the bums out!” angriest these days, and both parties are suffering as a result. There is also credible evidence, based on a race-by-race analysis of the upcoming House and Senate elections, to suggest that voters are prepared to put some hurt on both parties in November 2012.

But in the end, Obama’s inability to get America past the economic catastrophe George W. Bush left behind, combined with all the other crises Obama inherited, created or has been incapable of stopping, will be the defining issue of next year’s election. And it may not matter if the Republican presidential nomination goes to Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry or Chuckles the Clown.

If the unemployment rate is still high, as it inevitably will be, Obama will be in deep trouble. The question is, will he drag his party down along with him?

Of course, you could argue that the Democrats are already down – far down. They hit their high point on Election Night 2008 and have been on a downward spiral ever since.

Obama and his advisers, who ran such a deft campaign, have proven to be fairly inept at governing. They spent so much time congratulating themselves on their improbable victory and figuring the American public had bought into Obama’s pledge to be different, that they, incredibly, didn’t anticipate the GOP attacks to follow. They've enabled Republicans to largely set the agenda ever since.

The conservative litany of complaints against Obama ranges from the economic stimulus package to health care reform to the cap and trade bill to banking and financial reform.

But cap and trade failed, health reform is a jumbled mess that emphasizes mandates instead of health insurance for all, financial reform hasn’t punished a single bank, and the recovery package didn’t go far enough to actually stimulate the flagging economy.

Why didn’t Obama stake out bolder positions on these issues? Why not aim for single payer on health care reform and shoot for the moon on the stimulus? He wasn’t going to get his way, but it would have strengthened his position before negotiating with Republicans and allowed for true compromise instead of what we mostly got – capitulation.

The Republicans will call Obama a socialist no matter what he does. So why not actually articulate some progressive positions instead of selling short -- if not selling out -- your political base? The rhetoric couldn’t be any uglier anyway.

Worse, Obama and his allies have never adequately made the case for their priorities. Why should we expect them to do so now?

Most Republican insiders will tell you that their presidential field is terribly flawed. Romney is a stiff and awkward rich guy whose job at Bain Capital was to help companies downsize – not the "I feel your pain" image you want to project during economic bad times. He has repudiated most of his positions and accomplishments as Massachusetts governor in order to pander to GOP conservatives. And the fact that he's Mormon still makes some people queasy.

Perry seems good on paper – handsome, rugged looking, with a rags to riches story, a strong political operation and a solid record of job creation. But some of the guy’s rhetoric is downright scary, his hostility to environmental regulations is noteworthy even for a Texas conservative, and some of his coded Christian language will make political moderates nervous. And as a cocksure Texan, he may remind too many voters of George W. Bush.

Bachmann and Paul? Kooks.

But it may not matter. The longer he’s in office, the more Obama seems suited for academia than the rough and tumble of politics. Even when he does well – the assassination of Osama bin Laden, for example – even when he does the right thing, he gets swallowed up in no time, not by the vast right-wing conspiracy but by the vast media cacophony.

Congressional Democrats aren’t doing much to help the cause. How much longer will they keep trotting septuagenarians Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi before the public? How do you do that and plausibly say you’re the party of change?

Given the strange dynamics of Congress, Pelosi and Reid have incredible holds on their caucuses, and both are skillful lawmakers and politicians. But as the public face of the party -- not so much.

The Democrats’ Senate majority is in grave danger of evaporating next year. Republicans need to flip three seats to take over if Obama loses re-election, and four if he wins. One Democratic seat in North Dakota is certain to move to the GOP column, and Democratic seats in Virginia, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Missouri are in danger of falling. Democratic senators in Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are at least mildly vulnerable. Democrats have far fewer opportunities to capture Republican seats.

In the House, it’s possible Democrats can pick up a few seats – some Republican victories during last year’s wave were simply too fluky for them not to. But Democrats are retiring in conservative districts – a golden opportunity for some GOP pickups – and Republicans control the redistricting process in many key states. The chances of Democrats taking the 24 seats they need to get back to the majority are very slim indeed (though Nate Silver, the former baseball statistician who now writes about polls, polling and political trends for the New York Times, said the other day that Democrats could pick up 39 seats if they maintain their 7-point edge in the generic Congressional ballot).

It looks like an all-GOP government is on the horizon in Washington – or at best, a divided government with Republicans having even more power than they do now.

Grover Norquist, the anti-tax provocateur without portfolio who has somehow become so powerful that he merely has to say “jump” before Congressional Republicans respond “how high?”, once famously said that his goal was to make the federal government so small that he could drown it in a bathtub. He has also observed that if he could get Democrats to behave like Republicans, then he largely will have won.

Congratulations, Grover. Now that all that’s being talked about in Washington is shrinking government – and along with it, decimating health, safety and environmental regulations, bankrupting agencies that fund necessary transportation and infrastructure improvements, and eliminating funding for alternative energy, even as Obama makes his umpteenth visit to a company promoting “green jobs,” it's time to take some victory laps.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

The Bruce of Summer

Nightmare Scenario

Sources: Congressional delegation Dems eye Bartlett as redistricting target

Talkin’ 'Bout Their Generation

A Triple Play of Political Shame – An Indictment of the Ehrlich Campaign, Maryland’s Fumble on Gay Marriage, and the Prince George’s Ethical Saga

White Prince George's

A DREAM Denied?

Frack This!

The Undercard

Talking Union Blues
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.