- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

These are challenging times for Capitol Hill Republicans — particularly for the House GOP — who lack the procedural power tools afforded the new Democratic majority to mow down the minority. But the Democrats are in a box, too, finding it hard to locate the right utensils to drill an escape hatch of their own. Except for a torrent of legislation passed during the “first hundred hours” in January and now stalled in the Senate, Democrats’ muscle flexing has focused almost exclusively on changing direction on the war in Iraq. On other domestic questions, their progress seems stalled and their rhetorical tone more modest. They have not enacted a major tax increase, proposed national health insurance, or shut down the world’s free-trade system to protect their union allies.

But there is a method to this meekness. It explains the Democrats’ small-ball approach to domestic policy and should also give Republicans some hope amidst their gathering gloom. Taking a hard look at some new numbers analyzing the 2006 congressional election shows why the Democratic majority is fragile and why the GOP’s chances of retaking the House in 2008 are not a partisan pipe dream.

In the latest edition of Political Science Quarterly, University of California, San Diego professor Gary C. Jacobson offers some compelling evidence supporting these conclusions. The bad news for Republicans is that their 2006 drubbing doesn’t get any better in Mr. Jacobson’s analysis — it was the first time in American history, Mr. Jacobson notes, when a political party (the Democrats) so dominated its competition that it did not lose a single seat in either the House or the Senate.

Mr. Jacobson lays the Republican rout mostly at the feet of President Bush. “The primary source of the pro-Democratic tide in 2006 was public unhappiness with the Iraq War and its originator, George W. Bush,” he says. Mr. Jacobson demonstrates that, as I have written previously, massive defections among independents, rather than a loss of support among Republican partisans, was the main consequence of discontent about the war. The shift was the poison that exterminated the 12-year GOP majority: “Voters classifying themselves as independents had favored Republican candidates in 2002 and had given the Democrats a modest edge in 2004; in 2006 they broke decisively for the Democrats. Calculations based on 2004 and 2006 exit poll data indicate that nearly half the total vote swing to Democratic House candidates between these elections was supplied by independent voters, although they comprise only about a quarter of the electorate” (emphasis added). Despite Republican attempts to turn this tide, Democrats successfully nationalized the election against Mr. Bush, particularly among these swing voters.

But despite the pounding at the polls, other structural factors paint a little different mosaic — a picture that may actually produce some hope for the Republicans and explain why Democrats should tread lightly when it comes to the legislative agenda. As Mr. Jacobson writes, “The new Democratic majorities are far from secure.” The central structural advantage for Republicans is that their voters are distributed far more efficiently across congressional districts in the United States. Mr. Jacobson provides an instructive example. In 2000, Al Gore won the national popular vote over Mr. Bush. Yet applying the 2000 vote across current House districts, Mr. Bush wins 240 districts while Mr. Gore triumphs in 195 — more than enough to elect Republican John A. Boehner of Ohio as Speaker of the House. The same pattern would hold in the Senate, with Mr, Bush — despite losing the national popular vote by about 540,000 out of 105 million cast — winning 30 states to Mr. Gore’s 20, numbers that would make Mitch McConnell of Kentucky Majority Leader and could produce a 60-40 Republican Senate.

Just to be clear, Mr. Jacobson in no way predicts these outcomes. And Republicans have a lot of work in terms of rebuilding their brand. Yet his analysis does underscore the fragility of the Democrats’ majority and why they face a tough balancing act. The new majority has yet to unlock the secret of how to satisfy its more liberal wing in the House and still move measures through the Senate. And until this mystery is solved, Democrats run the risk of getting tagged as a “do-nothing Congress,” as opposed to the change agents the public clamored for in 2006. A lackluster legislative record coupled with a series of base-mollifying bad votes could result in a net swing back in the Republican direction in 2008. Politically savvy Democrats recognize the political box, just not the exit door yet.

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