Self-fulfilling prophecies of doom

As premature prophecies of Democratic doom proliferate, ricocheting through candidates’ brains and campaign organizations, they risk becoming self-fulfilling.

In part this risk results from some elected officials having been panicked into paralysis — unable to act meaningfully on any element of the legislative agenda for fear of alienating one constituency or another. While there are ecosystems in which simulated paralysis provides a natural way to go unnoticed, and therefore unmolested, during elections candidates get noticed — so in our world, paralyzed creatures get eaten alive.

Paralysis is far from what the public wants. Voters are not sifting through the legislative wreckage of the last few weeks and demanding of politicians, “Do nothing.” Quite the contrary — voters are saying, “I’ve got serious problems and you in Washington are fiddling with political games while my world is burning to the ground.” Voters want fewer filibusters, less partisanship, less wheeling-and-dealing and more problem-solving. They want to see action, not have their noses rubbed in process. 

Those who are paralyzed by panic, unable to act for fear of acting wrongly, threaten to inadvertently inflame the very wrath they dread by preventing Democrats from dealing with the country’s pressing problems. 

Prophecies of doom also become self-fulfilling through the more mundane mechanism of retirements. No Democrat or Republican has ever announced he is not seeking reelection because he may not win. Each has private motives that may have nothing whatever to do with fear of electoral failure. Nonetheless, as I have regularly argued here, people often do not understand the true motivations behind the decisions they make.

History suggests a pattern to which no individual admits. When the going gets tough, some for whom it is tough get going — out of Congress. Though this is not always the case, it is striking that, for example, very few Democrats voluntarily left Congress heading into the 2008 elections, while a large number of Republicans came to believe, in that particular year, they could be more useful in other fields of endeavor.

To the extent the current panic is producing retirements, they, too, threaten to bring prophesies of doom to fruition. Simply put, history teaches that even in the worst of times, open seats are a lot easier to lose than those held by incumbents. In 2008, a bad year for Republicans, 92 percent of GOP House incumbents were reelected, but the party managed to hold less than 60 percent of its open seats. Put differently, almost half of Democratic gains in 2006 came in open seats, though there were only a sixth as many as there were contests against incumbents.

Democrats’ debacle in 1994 also revealed the centrality of open seats in driving change in the composition of the chamber. That year, Republicans won 22 of 30 Democratic open seats — and despite the horrific political environment, 85 percent of Democratic incumbents won reelection. In fact, had there been no open Democratic seats in 1994, Newt Gingrich and his Republicans would not have taken control of the House in the aftermath of that election. 

So far, House Democrats have held retirements in nearly miraculous check. In fact, more GOP members than Democrats have announced their retirements, with just 13 Democrats declining to seek reelection, compared to 18 Republicans who have decamped for greener pastures. To date, the problem is more than manageable for Democrats, but it could worsen.

Panic is rarely a useful response to adversity. In this context, when it leads to either paralysis or retirement, it is downright damaging. Pushing back against panic to prevent a new wave of retirements, while spurring members to act on the nation’s crying needs, must remain Democrats’ top priorities. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.