- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The old saying, “close only counts inhorseshoesandhand grenades,” is clearly a misnomer. Take politics, for instance. A closely divided electorate counts a lot, especially in terms of the behavior of political parties and their leaders’ tactics in Washington.

Misinterpreting political conditions, and making the wrong tactical choices, is always a risk. The Democrats’ decision to put all their chips on the slogan “culture of corruption” is such a misread. Retrospective analyses of the 2006 elections will show this tactic cut both ways, hurting Democrats as much as it helped.

Close divisions in the American political terrain create sharp partisan edges in Congress. Small electoral changes in November could result in big shifts in partisan control. A net gain of 15 House seats or six Senate contests means America gets Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But political climatology, like Washington weather, has its seasons. The last decade has not been kind to congressional Democrats — “always winter but never Christmas,” in the words of C.S. Lewis. Except for a brief period in 2001-02, when control of the Senate flipped due to James Jeffords of Vermont switching parties, Republicans have managed a small but unified majority since 1994 on both sides of the Capitol.

Some seasons of American politics witness one-party domination of Congress, and minority tactics matter less. During the late 19th century, for example, Republicans held a firm grip on the reins of power in the House. In the 54th Congress (1895-97), Republicans controlled the House by more than 140 seats (246-104). In the 67th Congress (1921-23), Republicans again boosted their majority to record numbers (300-132). Democrats needed a cataclysmic event — like a major economic collapse — to be called “chairmen” again in those days. The political climate of the Great Depression gave them just that. For the next 40 years Democrats held the House, and at one point in the 75th Congress wielded a 155-seat majority, controlling the chamber 333-89. During these lopsided times, the minority just tries to “go along by getting along.”

Yet there are other seasons of American politics, more akin to today’s, when closely divided partisan control produces unpredictable partisan weather. It is in this climate that tactics matter more. Some believe, for example, that the Senate Democrats’ tactics obstructing President Bush’s judicial nominations helped Republicans retake a closely divided Senate in 2002 and boost their majority to its current 55-45 following the 2004 election.

The point of this brief history lesson is this: During periods of lopsided partisan control, minority tactical gambles mean less in the big-casino politics. But when margins shrink, strategic bets can either yield large payoffs or big busts. Democrats hope the “culture of corruption” gambit helps them hit the electoral jackpot in November, but a raft of survey evidence suggests it’s not working.

Last week, two veteran pollsters, Republican Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake, released their well-respected “Battleground Poll.” In his “Republican Strategic Analysis,” Mr. Goeas confirms what many public and private polls, including my own, have found over the past year. He writes, “the mood of the electorate is not an anti-incumbent mood, an anti-Democratic or anti-Republican mood, but an anti-Washington mood.”

So the refrain, “culture of corruption” doesn’t automatically translate to anti-Republican sentiment, as Democrats bet it will. Instead, it splashes mud on both parties, reminding voters that it’s the political class in Washington — not any particular party — that deserves their ire.

But how does stoking anger toward Washington affect turnout in an off-year election? The answer is unclear. Some argue it depresses enthusiasm in red and blue states. Polling data certainly suggests that might be the case. But since Democrats are slinging the mud, could it be like whacking a Republican hornet’s nest, exciting and motivating the Republican base? Both scenarios are possible in a closely divided electorate.

The stakes are high and the margins close this November. Democratic tactical decisions would have less significance in a more lopsided environment. But harping on the corruption theme, without any positive agenda, only reminds voters why they dislike both sides in Washington and has an unknown impact on activists on both sides. Voters want to know what you intend to do for them, not what you intend to do to your political opponents.

Without a positive issue platform, the Democrats’ narrative suggests they are self-interested and seek power above all else, captives of the “culture of narcissism” rather than a society of solutions.

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