In the Arena


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The Republican Party is likely to win a major victory tomorrow. But I’m not sure how big it will be. A cause for uncertainty is the nature of modern polling. Too many polls are done on the cheap, robotically, these days–and, as Michael Blumentual points out here, more than a few of them don’t call cellphone users, who tend to be disproportionately younger. Another cause for uncertainty is the amorphous nature of the Tea Party–it can stage fist-shaking rallies but can it get out the vote as the more proven sectors of the Republic Party, like the evangelical community, can…and how amped are the evangelicals, whom we’ve not heard much from this year, anyway? A third mitigating factor is the President’s relative popularity: 48% favorable v. 48% unfavorable, according to the latest CNN poll*, much better than Clinton or Reagan at a similar moment in their presidencies. A fourth mitigating factor is the continuing unpopularity of the Republicans in Congress (even more unpopular than the Democrats) and widespread public skepticism about their (same old) solutions.

But this is still likely to be a big Republican year. Why?

Because they, at least, have a coherent philosophy that has always had resonance with the American people: lower taxes, less government, fewer regulations. And the Democrats have run one of the stupider, more cowardly campaigns ever: They can not–or will not–explain the landmark legislation they’ve passed in the past two years. In many cases, they’ve run from what they’ve done.

There is a fundamental disconnect here: the Democrats passed legislation willy-nilly without giving the slightest thought, it seems, to how that legislation might be explained. This was especially true with the financial and health care reform packages. Why haven’t the Democrats settled–as Republicans undoubtedly would have–on 3 top line talking points that would explain what financial regulation does? Health care reform was always going to be a heavy lift, since 80% of the American people are satisfied with the coverage they have–but why should senior citizens know more about Medicare spending cuts in the bill (which will largely result from a more efficient system, in which electronic record-keeping will reduce the need for duplicative procedures like, for example, blood tests) than they do about the $250 each of them has received to fill the prescription drug donut hole? As it has evolved this year, the public knows all the bad things about the bills that have passed–including more than a few “bad things” that aren’t in them–but they haven’t heard the plus side of the story.

Tina Brown has a good column today about the President’s need to be a more theatrical pol. We all know about the President’s demeanor; it was the calm that got him elected after his opponent panicked in the midst of the financial crisis in 2008. But there is a need for him to be more blatant about his successes. I know it would probably bust the No Drama canon for Barack Obama to show up at some elderly person’s door with one of the gigantic Publishers’ Clearing House checks for $250–and some donuts–to announce the closing of the donut hole, but it would certainly lead the evening news (and the elderly are about the only people left who watch the evening news).

I’ll have more to say about the elections once they’re over. But with the Republican refusal to offer any plausible alternatives on the economy, financial regulation and health care reform, this campaign has proved a reversal of the old cliche: you can’t beat nothing with something. Which reminds me of a banner featured by one of my favorite saloons of the 1970s, New York’s Lone Star Cafe: too much ain’t enough. The Obama Administration offered too much legislation and it wasn’t enough to convince the public that Democrats were working in their best interests.

*Today, CNN has Obama at 46-51%, worse, but not appreciably different from the 48-48% poll.