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Democrats and the success imperative

Entering a new election cycle, Democrats face a radically altered political dynamic and a single overriding strategic imperative — to succeed. In control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, we can no longer merely blame Bush and propose better, if largely unspecified, alternatives. We must deliver.

Rescuing those assertions from mere banality is recognition of the fact that prioritizing success accords other criteria a lesser status. In short, it is more important to support policies that will work than to insist they are popular or ideologically pure.

Midterm elections are historically treacherous, with the president’s party losing seats in all but three since the Civil War. While two of the three instances occurred in recent years, we cannot rely on the exceptions becoming the rule. Minimizing potential losses requires measurable improvements in our national circumstances.

The need to succeed is particularly acute in the economic realm, though the definition here is broad. Jobs have emerged as a central front in our economic struggles, and with some projecting unemployment exceeding 8 percent, public focus on jobs will continue to increase. However, voters’ “economy” also encompasses the cost of living — wages, healthcare, energy, food, college and a host of other expenses.

The worst midterm showings for presidential parties have often been in the midst of recessions (’94, ’82, ’58), while losses have been minimized in periods of significant economic growth.

History suggests that even more important than the absolute level of economic performance is its trajectory. Democrats will be rewarded (in relative terms) if voters perceive things are getting better, even if the economy has not fully recovered.

However, if voters do not sense improvement, Democrats are likely to pay a significant electoral price.

While Bush’s policies bear responsibility for the collapse, Democratic control of both the legislative and executive branches will offer voters clear clues about whom to punish if gains fail to materialize.

Avoiding voters’ wrath brings us back to Democrats’ overriding strategic imperative — to succeed at restoring economic growth and increasing the real incomes of Americans.

Democrats would do well to evaluate prospective policies through that prism and not for their current popularity or their ideological acceptability. While clear majorities back the stimulus, polls will no doubt show some elements to be less popular. The financial rescue plan is decidedly unpopular, while loans to the auto industry fall somewhere in between.

Politically, the test ought to be not “Are the policies popular today?” but “Will they actually improve our economy over the next two years?” A policy that is unpopular today, but succeeds in growing the economy will provide a vastly greater political payoff than one that is popular now but fails to make a positive real-world impact. Failure to act at all is, in turn, the worst of all possible alternatives.

I remember being honored with an invitation from Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) to address a House caucus on the floor, just prior to the healthcare debate in 1994. I argued then that the debate about to occur was not just about ideology or the popularity of a specific plan, it was about “political survival.” If Democrats brought about meaningful healthcare reform, I urged, we could go into a difficult election with real prospects of victory. However, if we failed to deliver, we would not survive as the majority. My words had little impact, but they turned out to be more prescient than I imagined, as, after falling prey to a myriad of divisions, Congress failed to produce reform and Democrats went on to suffer massive defeat.

While today’s economic circumstances are more dire, and the political stakes frankly lower, much of the same could be said as Congress and the president-elect plan an economic rescue.

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.