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The point of a congressional majority is to use it, not to keep it


Tim Fernholz recommends Jonathan Martin's autopsy of Creigh Deeds's failed campaign for the Virginia governorship. "The lessons couldn't be clearer," Fernholz says. "Equivocation doesn't win votes. Campaigning on a real agenda does. Running away from President Obama isn't the same as running away from the caricature of the national Democrats, and it doesn't seem to work. Moderate and conservative Democrats would do well to examine these ideas if they don't want to end up losing tough races next year."

Maybe! Or, you know, maybe not. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are way more conservative than their state and they spend most of their time equivocating and curtailing the ambitions of other people who have real agendas. Yet they're wildly popular. Ben Nelson's behavior doesn't seem to have dented his standing as an equivocating Democrat in a conservative state. The House is full of Democrats ambivalent about their party standing and loud about their inner conflicts.

Deeds seems to have been a bad candidate, and that probably mattered. On the other hand, incumbent parties generally lose off-year elections, lose elections when the economy is doing terribly, and lose elections after their party has been in power a long time. Deeds ran smack into all three. A better candidate probably could have done better, but that would have probably meant losing by a bit less.

On some level, this is all obvious: Off-year elections don't favor the minority because the majority forgets to speak clearly. But part of the danger with emphasizing the primacy of campaign strategy and message is that it favors an overly political view of how legislators should think of their seats. The point of the Democratic majority in the next few years is not to enable the campaign strategies that will sustain a Democratic majority. It's to pass legislation, knowing full well that Democrats will lose their majority, and probably sooner than they would like.

That's the nature of politics: The moment your offense succeeds, you are, by definition, left playing defense, as you have more seats to defend than they do. But that means you're never, or at least rarely, playing offense when you can actually score. Health-care reform barely passed the House on Saturday, and most of the Democrats who voted against it are from fairly conservative districts that may not return them to Congress. Passing health-care reform, however, is far more important than holding a marginal district for two terms rather than one. The point of winning uncommonly large majorities is to use large majorities, not to keep them slightly longer than would otherwise be the case.

Photo credit: By Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  November 9, 2009; 6:33 PM ET
Categories:  Democrats  
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Alas, individual Congressmen have more invested in holding their seat than simply getting legislation passed. So long as their livelihood and reputations in the community are connected with re-election, they'll always hedge on the side of caution -- even though many would likely agree with your statement in principle.

Posted by: davestickler | November 9, 2009 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Hoo boy. They're all careerists who need income and crave stature and in some cases must feed bottomless egos. This means immediate political pressures (or their daily perception of those pressures) usually trump any idealistic impulse,

Posted by: scarlota | November 9, 2009 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Yeah but then you might get re-elected on LIBERAL votes, which are barely real votes at all...

Posted by: NS12345 | November 9, 2009 7:13 PM | Report abuse

a politician is an arse upon
which everyone has sat except a man
-- e. e. cummings

Such is the person who stands as a light to Ezra Klein.

Posted by: msoja | November 9, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

You demonstrate a disconnect in the politics of serving in Congress verses the politics of representing constituents. That is, Rahm and Schumer were solely interested in winning majorities in both houses without regard for so-called moderates who were e.g. anti-abortion. They recruited and supported candidates with the expectation that a D after their name meant that these candidates would--after being elected, and to show their gratification for Dem money, etc.-- vote along party lines. This is not how it works in the real world because the representatives care more about winning re-election than helping the Democratic party achieve its goals. This also makes it clear why lobbyists and money in politics ruins the idea of representative government.

Posted by: goadri | November 9, 2009 8:12 PM | Report abuse

Yes, but how do you say that to the representative from the marginal district who thinks that his barely-won seat is a ticket to a lifelong career in politics? Sure, they also have ambitions to climb the ladder in the party, and maybe you have some leverage over them by threatening to pull the plug on their aspirations within the party. But those rewards would only be given in the long term; right now, they're more focused on what's going to happen at the next election.

Posted by: blah1 | November 9, 2009 8:16 PM | Report abuse

Of course, it might not be a terrible idea to adopt policies that will be popular - or at least stave off potentially disastrous results. Like passing a stimulus bill large enough to cut unemployment, and not passing most of it in the form of tax cuts. You would think that it's a double-win - good policy and good politics. Alas. Fear and a lack of vision won out. And a year from now, when unemployment is still above 9%, possibly 10%, we'll all reap the consequences.

Posted by: Sophomore | November 9, 2009 9:03 PM | Report abuse

I disagree with your comment that Snowe and Collins are "way more conservative" than Mainers. Maine's politics are far from the reliably liberal southern New England. Maine has a recent history of electing both moderate Dems and Repubs. The current Gov., Baldacci is a Dem but just lowered taxes. The prior governor was an independent who won 2 terms. Before Snowe and Collins, our Senators were Mitchell - a relatively moderate Dem and William Cohen a Repub who ended up serving in Clinton's cabinet.

And don't you think that Snowe and Collins' popularity says something about whether they reflect their consituents views?

Posted by: mbp3 | November 9, 2009 9:42 PM | Report abuse

--"You would think that it's a double-win"--

A bunch of people in the old Soviet Union thought central planning was the wave of the future, but in practice it turned out to be a nightmare. You're just one of three hundred million potential Monday morning economic quarterbacks and everyone else's ideas are just as valid as yours, and even if you purge or otherwise dispose of those who most vehemently disagree with you, you're never going to be able to saddle the remainder with a workable one size fits all solution. You think you know what's best, then follow it yourself, and quit trying to run everyone else's life. It's supposed to be a free country. Act like it.

Posted by: msoja | November 9, 2009 9:56 PM | Report abuse

ps. Get the government out of the economics business. It shouldn't be dispensing "stimulus" packages, nor should it be taxing so heavily that tax cuts can be wielded as tools of coercion.

Posted by: msoja | November 9, 2009 10:01 PM | Report abuse

If you think any stimulus package is a bad idea, why do you think one that's oriented to reducing unemployment on Main St. is worse than one aimed at reducing losses on Wall Street? It just seems odd to me that the free market absolutists have any horse in this race at all -- once the dread government intervention occurs, we're all supposed to be screwed regardless of the labels on our suits.

Posted by: NS12345 | November 9, 2009 10:06 PM | Report abuse

Wonks want politicians to use their power to implement desired policies. Politicians and political parties want to entrench and expand their own power. This is counterbalanced by individuals who want to expand their own power _within_ the party, which is done by supporting certain policies favored by the wonks, even if it causes the power of the party itself to suffer.

And sometimes good policy is good politics: eg, FDR's reforms entrenched Democratic party dominance for a generation and a half. But you're off-base if you think that parties come into power with the attitude that they're going to shove their policies through and then deal with losing power. They do what they do with an eye towards keeping themselves in power.

Posted by: tyromania | November 9, 2009 10:41 PM | Report abuse

The decision was made not to go for a quality bill. Now Dems have neither a quality bill nor a bipartisan one, and they feel they have to pass it anyway. That is one mind-blowing screw up.

Posted by: bmull | November 9, 2009 10:57 PM | Report abuse

Exactly. I am prepared to return the White House and Congress to the Republicans in 2012 if we get heath care reform, higher taxes on the rich, Wall Street regulation, and our military out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Really, who cares after that?

Posted by: Neal3 | November 10, 2009 3:33 AM | Report abuse

I've got a def opinion based on yrs of experience in DC in and out of gov: If Dems lose control of Congress in '10, even less of the Prez' goals and liberal goals will be achieved. Even if a liberal legislative agenda were able to be crammed through Congress between now and '10 elections, but the Repubs gained control of Congress in '10, it would be much worse than if the Congress remains in Dem control with moderate Dems causing compromises in legislation.

Posted by: zippyzeph | November 10, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Easy for you to say Ezra. This is those Congressmen's lives you are talking about.

Posted by: lancediverson | November 10, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

That's all fine. But if you want to use the VA gubernatorial election as an example of *anything*, it would behoove the writer to note that the incumbent governor of Virginia *cannot* *be* *reelected*.

I say this every time, but no one listens.


Posted by: ajw_93 | November 10, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

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