Through Luck or Skill, Democrats Are Winning Tactical Advantages in 2012

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

President Barack Obama smiles during remarks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference in Washington, March 4, 2012.

Facing the potentially insurmountable challenge of a slow economic recovery in an election year, Democrats have looked for little ways to gain political advantage over Republicans in 2012. Some of their efforts have bombed, like their rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline just as gas prices spiked. Others have gone nowhere, like their efforts to shame Republicans in Congress into supporting further stimulus. But a few bunts have turned into extra base hits. Here are some of their more successful gambits, along with one that has yet to play out.

Voting Rights: Attorney General Eric Holder’s big roll-out on voting rights hasn’t done much to change the conversation nationally, but a by-product of the Administration’s efforts yielded fruit. In Texas, which reliably votes Republican in the presidential election, Democrats fought a post-2010 census redistricting plan that would have resulted in a gain of 2-4 seats for Republicans in the House. By chance, the ensuing legal mess ended up pushing the Texas primary from Super Tuesday all the way back to May, possibly further. The upshot, as luck would have it for the Dems, was to prolong the GOP primary season by dragging out the contest between Santorum and Gingrich to be the South’s favorite non-Romney.

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Housing: After the 2010 robo-signing scandal, a brief surge of public outrage united all 50 state attorneys general in an investigation of big banks’ handling of mortgages. The investigation turned into negotiations over a multi-billion dollar settlement that would protect the banks from state and federal prosecution on some issues in exchange for a big payout to homeowners, but the negotiations stalled as liberal and conservative attorneys general bolted when things didn’t go their way. Realizing late last summer that the entire project could die, the Obama Administration stepped in and through a combination of deal making and flattery reunited nearly all of the AGs behind a deal. In the process, the Administration delivered the biggest settlement  for aggrieved homeowners–$1,500 to $2,000 for anyone evicted who claims their foreclosure was mishandled—and a large infusion of money for state programs aimed at easing the consequences of the housing crisis. Although the deal is unlikely to do much for homeowners in the grand scheme of things, it got the banks to cough up billions for an Administration-run program, allowing Obama to claim he fought the banks and delivered for homeowners.

Women’s Issues: Democrats’ biggest win so far started out as a defensive maneuver. The GOP has, of course, been looking for its own winning issues this year and had spent months planning their move against what they called Obama’s war on religion. At first it looked like a winner for the GOP. When Obama announced that religious institutions would have to cover contraception for employees, the GOP pushed back amid an outcry from the Catholic church. But then the GOP overplayed its hand. The Administration backed down, shifting the payments for contraception to the insurance companies, the GOP charged ahead with hearings, and the Democrats started looking for witnesses to make their case. That’s how they found Sandra Fluke. With a little help from Rush Limbaugh—well, a lot of help—the Dems managed to turn a losing war-on-religion issue into a winning war-on-women one.

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The Administration has some other moves planned. The most visible is on ObamaCare. Last year they made the decision  to push for a ruling by the Supreme Court on Obama’s signature health care reform bill before the election, rather than waiting until afterward. The Administration thinks it has a base-motivating winner no matter what the outcome, but Obama has good reason to think he may win—several powerful conservative judges have ruled the law constitutional.

On the other hand, the record shows so far that for both sides this year, big wins and big losses have come as much by chance as by planning.

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