How to hold on to the House

The selection of loopy Republican Senate nominees has given the Democrats their first serious opportunity in months to turn this election around to hold onto the House — a feat that would now be considered a major political victory no matter how slim the margin.

But capitalizing on these turns will take more than mocking negative ads — it will take a dash back to the center. The Democratic Congress is perceived as too far to the left to keep our fiscal house in order, safeguard our families or bring about needed jobs in the new economy. Its approval ratings are rock-bottom at 21 percent in the last New York Times / CBS News poll.

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There is no doubt 2010 is looking more and more like 1994, when President Clinton’s series of legislative victories related to guns, trade and taxes boomeranged. Either President Obama acts now, or he will be faced with similar post-election choices that President Clinton faced in 1994.

The temptation on the Democratic side will be to nationalize the election with a broadside of attacks on the Republican Party, accusing the GOP of backing tax cuts for the wealthy. Making the election about class warfare has consistently been a loser for the Democrats, and this year will be no exception.

Here’s an alternative path to reclaim the center and turn voters’ heads:

1. Extend the tax cuts a year until global tax reform can be conceived and passed. This is the easiest way to diffuse tax anger, bring in centrist voters and keep Obama’s upper-income support rock solid. This would get the tax cuts out of this election cycle and give the administration a year to craft serious reform proposals to make the tax system fairer, simpler and more transparent.  

2. Offer to consider changes in healthcare reform. Reform continues to be unpopular. By offering to have a bipartisan commission study the implementation of healthcare reform and recommend any necessary changes to keep costs down, the administration could get ahead of this festering issue and also reduce some of the pressure over this bill. This would give moderate Congressional candidates who voted for it a safe position to go on healthcare reform.

3. Find a moral voice in response to deepening social problems. The Clinton administration attacked teen pregnancy, drug use, deadbeat fathers and violence in the media with a vengeance and gave voters a real sense that the administration had a moral compass — i.e. that it was possible to be pro-choice and pro-family values.  There is no sense out in the country that the administration has taken on any of these social issues.  

4. Draw a line in the sand on the deficit.  The administration needs to put down some markers that there are clear limits to its formula of fiscal expansion as primary economic policy. They are less concerned with the theoretical economic arguments than they are the basic notion that today’s spending equals tomorrow’s taxes for them and their families.

5. Explain why the country must move forward, not backward. You don’t take the pitcher out in the second inning of the game or change the doctor in the middle of an operation. The truth is that we know that the Bush policies failed and that going back to them will not bring success — sometimes it takes patience to see the changes through. In 1994, Newt Gingrich at least had the Contract for America and a coherent framework — right now the Republican Party is so splintered they have no similar believable leadership. They look like the Democratic Party of the ’70s — fractured, incoherent.

It goes without saying that the president also has to convince the voters he will focus on jobs and unemployment, but in the absence of these other actions, they will not believe a Democratic Congress and Democratic president will change from the course of tax and spend against which they are revolting.

Time is running out for Obama to turn these elections around enough to hold on to the House. As this list shows, it will take more than just rhetoric in the face of nearly 10 percent unemployment and an angry public — it will take tangible signs that Democrats are reclaiming the center — and the lurch to the right by the Republicans has created a last-minute opportunity to prove that and shift the outcome. 


Mark Penn is CEO of Burson-Marsteller and Penn, Schoen and Berland. He has advised President Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair. He was White House pollster from 1995 to 2000, including through the 1998 midterms.


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