Usually people return from vacation with a lighter outlook, but after the year-end Senate break, Majority Leader Harry Reid is in a glum mood. On Sunday’s Face the Nation, the Nevada senator said there was little hope that Congress would be better in 2014 than it was in 2013, a year in which the institution achieved greatness only in scoring historic approval-rating lows. “Unless the Republicans in Congress decide they should do something for the American people, I'm sorry to say that's true," he said when asked if this year would be as bad as last. "The rating in Congress is down. If somebody called me in a poll, I would vote with them. This is awful what's been going on.”
Reid's remarks should dispel most of the bipartisan self-congratulation that surrounded the $85 billion end-of-the-year budget agreement between the House and the Senate. That modest achievement was heralded by some, including the president, as a possible starting point for bipartisan cooperation in 2014. Reid didn’t bother trying to build on that because we are in an election year, in which control of the Senate could be in play. Whatever detours there might be from the constant state of fracas will be temporary. And the bipartisan detours won't really be detours from politics at all. Top Republican aides in both chambers say the reason that GOP members embraced the budget deal was to keep the public focus on the Affordable Care Act, which they thought was doing a good job making Democrats look bad.
"It's hard to hug someone when they're pushing you away," said one top GOP Senate aide in response to Reid.
This year was always scheduled to be one for pushing and shoving from both parties. The president's team almost always loses seats in midterm elections. Since World War II, the average has been six seats when a president is in his sixth year, which coincidentally is the exact number Republicans need to take control of the Senate and demote Harry Reid. Seven of the seats that Democrats are defending are in states Mitt Romney carried. Six of those states are ones that Romney won by double digits. (Voters have increasingly chosen Senate candidates from the party they prefer in presidential elections.) Given these stakes, if Reid didn't push first, he was likely to be on the receiving end of a shove.
In 2010 and 2012, Democrats faced similar challenges with the electoral map and won by defining their opponents as extreme early in the process and then pouncing on mistakes. Democrats can only hope for candidates as helpful as Richard Mourdock, the Indiana Senate candidate who said that even rape was something that God intended, and Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, who said that pregnancy rarely results from “legitimate rape.”* These remarks put the candidates and party on the defensive and allowed Democrats to rally female voters, a key part of their base. In 2012 Democrats were so successful exploiting those two men as characteristic of the Republican Party that it came up time and again in conversations I had with undecided voters weighing their presidential choice. (Obama's campaign team worked to make this happen, of course.)
Replicating this success is a two-part process. First, Democrats must prepare the ground, then their candidates must shove their opponents into the hole. The two coming fights over unemployment benefits and the minimum wage are part of a larger economic fight about inequality. The policy reasons for talking about the issue are unassailable—even Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio are talking about inequality—and these two specific measures are broadly popular. But there is also a larger strategy. Democrats are trying to define Republicans more broadly as unfeeling and uncaring agents of an extreme ideological wing. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, when voters were asked which party shows compassion and concern for people, 45 percent said Democrats and 17 percent said Republicans. The president in his weekly radio address on Saturday wasn't doing anything to kindle the bipartisan momentum of the end of last year. He said for Republicans to deny unemployment benefits would be "just plain cruel."
By hitting on these issues dear to the Democratic base, the party will continue to raise lots of money, but will the message actually move voters? Democratic strategists say that individual candidates need all the help they can get, so the national effort can't hurt. But for the message to be effective, Republican candidates will have to embody the stereotype as Mitt Romney did in the famous secretly taped video of his remarks about the 47 percent of the country that would not vote for him.
So you see it in press releases across the party. Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, issued a press release Monday hitting the minority leader on his lack of support for an increase in the minimum wage. The Democratic National Committee attacked Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for not supporting the minimum wage. “Whose Side is Walker on?” it asks. Update, Jan. 7: Democratic Senate candidates are also pressing the case in unison over the extension of unemployment benefits.
This offensive also seeks to change the subject from the Affordable Care Act. When Reid was asked if vulnerable Democrats should run as proud sponsors of the law, he ducked. He cited some statistics about how many people had gotten coverage, but that's not enough to change negative public opinion. The voters who are most politically potent on the issue of health care are those who already have it and worry that the chaos caused by implementation of the ACA will destroy their health care. Those fears won't be fixed by a website that works. The improvement in website performance only means that Democrats have cleared a hurdle of their own making. They still have to wrestle with all of the political problems they worried about on Oct. 1, when a functioning site was supposed to launch.
As Jonathan Gruber points out, an accurate assessment of the ACA won't really be possible until May when insurance companies offer their new premium estimates. Then we'll know how the program has affected the market. In the fall, we'll learn how many fewer people are uninsured. Republicans aren't going to wait for the data to come in, and the White House won't stop making grand claims about the program's success that potentially exacerbate the party’s credibility problem on the issue. That means Democrats still face exposure with those voters who already have insurance and lack evidence that can reverse their worry. Until then, they need to throw punches and duck the subject they like least.
Correction, Jan. 6, 2014: This article originally misspelled Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's last name. (Return.)