The NY Times tackles the question of whether the Democrats can realistically hope to re-capture the House in 2006. They are not hopeful:
An Opening for Democrats, However Slim
WASHINGTON - ACROSS the political landscape, there are signs the nation may be headed toward a sweeping anti-incumbent election next year. The Republican Congressional majority is staggering from one setback to another, the voters seem uneasy about problems at home and the war abroad, and President Bush's approval ratings have reached new lows.
Democrats dream of another 1994, with control of the House changing hands, this time to them. All they need, after all, is a net gain of 15 seats, surely an attainable goal in a nation of 435 Congressional districts.
Or is it?
Even the most optimistic Democrat has to wonder, deep down, whether big, 1994-style change is possible in the current House. Redistricting and other incumbent protections have created a Republican fortress in recent years, with so little turnover that even the party's relatively narrow majority is very hard to crack.
They eventually get to some numbers sure to spread gloom across Team Reality:
So many districts have become safe, tilted to one party with the help of redistricting, that political analysts can identify only two or three dozen House seats that are, at the moment, competitive. Gaining 15 seats out of that small a group would be like threading a needle. In contrast, 15 months before the 1994 election, the Cook Political Report, an independent handicapper of House races, rated 89 seats as competitive - based on fund-raising, the strength of the incumbent and the challenger, and the political demographics of the district.
It would be wrong, with hindsight, to suggest that the Republicans had it easy in 1994; many political experts considered the very idea of Republicans taking control of the House, after 40 years in the minority, almost laughable until the final weeks of the campaign. But by many measures, the Republicans had more targets of opportunity a decade ago than Democrats do today. In 1992, 56 Democrats won with 55 percent of the vote or less, an indicator of their vulnerability in 1994, according to Cook. Only 19 Republicans won with 55 percent or less in 2004.
Or consider this: 103 Congressional districts in 1992 voted for one party's candidate for president and another party's candidate for the House, a marker of a potential swing district. In 2004, there were only 59 such districts. Moreover, by 1994, the realignment of the South had left some conservative Democrats representing districts that had become solidly Republican; their replacement, essentially, was only a matter of time.
But perhaps the most striking advantage the Republicans had in 1994 was the number of Democratic retirements: there were 52 open seats that year, 31 of them that had been held by Democrats, according to Cook. So far in this cycle, Republicans have 13 open seats, Democrats 7. Open seats are much easier for the other party to capture.
Essentially unmentioned in this article are three other challenges for the Democrats:
(1) Where is the sense of betrayal?
Bill Clinton ran as a moderate in 1992. By 1994, with gays in the military, the abandonment of the middle class tax cut, the BTU tax turned gasoline tax, Hillary-care, and the assault weapons ban, swing voters may have felt that Clinton had swung too far.
Now, I am not going to tell you that swing voters looking back on 2005 are going to give George Bush a big "Mission Accomplished". And, after Katrina and Miers, the sense of Bush competence has faded for those who believed in it. However, I doubt that many people are asking themselves whether this is really the man they voted for in the same way they did in 1994.
(2) Who is the Democratic leader?
Republicans put Newt Gingrich front and center as the leader of the House Republicans. Are Dems prepared to run out Nancy Pelosi to represent the face-lifted Democratic Party?
Bring it on.
(3) What are the issues?
In 1994, Republicans united around their "Contract With America".
In 2006, the Democrats hope to unite around their "Contract to be Neither Bush Nor DeLay". Can such a negative message work? Time will tell, but that is not how the Reps won in 1994.
Now, the Times tells us that the Dems are rallying behind some talking points:
But right now, Congressional Democrats say they are preparing to run as the party of change, offering "new priorities," as their talking points put it, with an emphasis on "putting our fiscal house in order" and making new investments in energy independence, health care and education.
Hmm, maybe the Times was leaked a Jon Stewart script - put our fiscal house in order while raising spending? How?
In 2004, only Howard Dean was prepared to advocate a full repeal of the Bush tax cuts - even Paul Krugman admitted that, politically, the middle class portion of those cuts were probably untouchable.
And repealing the tax cuts for the rich won't even close the current budget gap, let alone pay for new spending.
That's the domestic message. We all eagerly await the Dems attempt to unite around a message on Iraq. The current theme - "Bush duped us, now let us run the country" - may need a bit of refinement. However, the Democratic Party continues to be deeply schismatic on the question of cut and run versus see the job through.
So, can Democrats unite with a credible domestic platform? Probably not.
Can they unite on Iraq? Pigs will fly.
But they may still win the House in 2006.
ADDENDUM: Oh, that was fun, but I would love to have the time to check some CBO forecasts to verify my tax cut assertions. The Bush economy has done so well that my talking points may be outdated.
I also have the idea that in 1994 we were still moaning about a jobless recovery, but I want to check that as well. If so, then a stronger 2006 economy and troops coming home will complete the Dem rout.
And let's take a moment to project the Progressive message progression:
January - "We need to bring the troops home";
May - "We need to bring the troops home";
August - "Bush's announcement that he is bringing some troops home is a cheap political stunt."
Oh, we are having fun...