The fascination the nation seems to have with the Presidential election masks other issues that are equally fascinating, maybe even more so. In particular, how much could a new Democratic President accomplish if the Republicans retain control of the House? That such a President can jawbone on what the country needs to do goes without saying. But jawboning is quite different from getting major legislation passed and signed into law. Looking at the recent past, how much of President Obama’s legacy will point to things done in his first two years, when the Democrats were in control of Congress? If divided government largely means gridlock, why do we care about who is President so much? As voters are we content with jawboning on the issues? If we are not and instead want to see fixes to the many and varied problems we now face, shouldn’t we be as concerned with what the next Congress will look like?
The conventional wisdom on the matter seems to be that while the Democrats have an opportunity to take back the Senate, the House will remain in the hands of the Republicans, a consequence of gerrymandering and Citizens United making Republican incumbents especially hard to beat. Further, such a Republican House will simply refuse to negotiate with a Democratic President and Democratic controlled Senate. (Plus, the Filibuster might mute what the Democrats can accomplish in the Senate.) In light of recent events following Speaker Boehner’s surprise announcement that he would be stepping down, the conventional wisdom should be questioned, on whether Republican control of the House remains a near certainty.
There is a different way to question matters as they are currently reported, which relies too much on the polls, in my view. Within the last six months both Gallup and Nielsen have called our house (as indicated by caller ID). I have now gotten into the habit of not picking up unless I know the caller already. The volume of solicitations is simply too great. Following that habit, I didn’t pick up to answer these pollsters. In other areas of polling, such as ratemyprofessor.com, I believe the sense is that people with extreme views - for or against - tend to participate. People with more moderate views tend to sit it out. But that is sitting out the polling only. It doesn’t speak to whether the person will sit out or participate in the election. What are the views of likely voters who don’t respond to the such polling? How many such voters are there? Does anyone know the answer to these questions?
Late last year, before any of the Presidential contenders had formally announced, but concerned as I am now with the makeup of Congress and getting sensible legislation passed, I wrote an essay called How to Save the Economy and the Democratic Party - A Proposal, which made sense to me at the time because taking back the House seemed like such a long shot. The idea was to develop an economic plan for the country that would be heavily marketed, but in a non traditional way. The effort would involve educating voters as to how to think of the economy and about policy that might improve things. This would take time and much deliberation. As a consequence of that effort, the electorate would embrace the plan. This would then let candidates who might otherwise have little name recognition with voters quickly overcome that problem by endorsing the plan. In effect, voters would be voting for the policy more than for the candidate.
Now, about 10 months later, there is far less time left for such an education effort and since then Republicans seem to have branded themselves as the party of crazy, at both the Presidential and Congressional levels. Conceivably, simply running on “I am not a Republican” might be a winning ticket. In other words, it may be that independent voters instead of splitting their votes go heavily Democratic this time around. But one wonders why such voters wouldn’t simply sit this one out instead. As a voter, I would like to have positive feelings about the candidate I do vote for. I suspect that most voters are similarly situated. What can be done to encourage that?
If it is the Presidential race that motivates the voter to go to the polling place and if those independent voters do embrace the Democratic candidate for President, does it follow that they will also vote Democratic for their House candidate? After the fact we talk about whether the Presidential candidate generated large coattails. Can that be meaningfully orchestrated before the fact?
It seems to me that a comparatively short list of issues claim the lion’s share of attention in the national press (and in our discussions via social media) and other very important issues are ignored. Here I’ll focus on just one, as it is a mirror of of the gridlock at the Federal level that I’ve already mentioned. This is that at the state level most of the governors and state legislatures are now controlled by the Republicans and this is unlikely to change dramatically with the elections in 2016. Can these states then undo to some extent whatever is done at the Federal level? If so, that would likely discourage participation of independents. What might be done at the Federal level so the impact of such state action in minimized?
I believe each of the Democratic Presidential candidates needs to develop an agenda that is explicit enough that the voters can take it as an action plan to follow for the first eighteen months they are in office and so Democratic Congressional candidates can endorse not just the particular Presidential candidate but the candidate’s agenda as well. Preferably, the agenda is produced well in advance of the Democratic Convention and the one proposed by the winning candidate becomes the de facto party plank. The agenda should, of course, have a lot of meat for traditional Democratic voters. But it must also have enough meat for independents in currently Republican controlled Congressional districts to encourage their participation and willingness to vote for their local Democratic candidate for the House.
Let me make one more point and close. The passage of the Affordable Care Act was an extremely arduous and time consuming process. We should expect any meaningful legislation that will come out of the next Congress to be equally arduous and time consuming. But perhaps the making sausage part in producing such legislation can be affected by the agenda that the new President produced while a candidate. This would require some specifics to the agenda items. So the agenda needs to be more than broad brush goals. We are a republic, not a direct democracy. But our campaigning in poetry and governing in prose way of doing things needs to change to make the campaign more real and the governing more idealistic. The writing of the agenda would be a good step in that direction.