Campaign 2012: The Target-in-Chief

Both Sides in the Race for Congress Have Framed Their Summer Talking Points to Benefit From the Referendum on Obama

Posted July 27, 2012 at 9:38am

When Mitch McConnell declared shortly before the 2010 midterm elections that his top priority was preventing President Barack Obama’s re-election, it seemed like an obsession rather than a logical focus for the Senate Minority Leader. But for the past two years, top Congressional Republicans have indeed kept their focus squarely on criticizing the Democratic president — and have even found ways to intensify their critiques during the current campaign season.

McConnell’s determination to get rid of Obama, and Speaker John Boehner’s almost daily “Where are the jobs?” lamentation about the president’s management of the economy, demonstrates that Congressional Republicans see their own electoral fate as coupled to this year’s presidential race — as was the case when Obama’s victory four years ago helped Democrats increase their House and Senate majorities.

Senate campaigns and House races can, and often do, turn on personal appeal and state and local issues. But this year’s struggle for control of Congress is focusing as much as ever on voter attitudes toward the chief executive and his administration’s policies. Thus, the major issues of the fall campaign — jobs, taxes, health care, immigration and energy policy — have largely emerged from Republican criticism of the Obama presidency.

Congressional leaders from both parties are appearing on Sunday morning talk shows virtually every week, but what they talk about is the presidential race — not the exceptionally close contest this fall for control of the Senate or the Democrats’ long-shot effort to pick up 25 seats and regain control of the House.

When the Senate’s No. 2 Democratic and Republican leaders — Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), respectively — squared off July 15 on “Meet the Press,” their topic was whether presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s role at Bain Capital is a legitimate topic for the national campaign. Durbin did find a tie-in to Congressional issues, saying Senate Democrats want to eliminate “the tax incentive we have to outsource jobs,” as he alleges the Republican challenger’s private equity firm had done. And Kyl said he expects his party to control the Senate next year and halt that Democratic effort and others that would raise taxes.

The profoundly divided 112th Congress has not produced any major legislation that lawmakers in either party are anxious to tout. Last summer’s bipartisan debt limit deal yielded unsuccessful super committee deliberations and a fallback automatic spending cut mechanism that no one likes and that Republicans are now campaigning to change on grounds that it imperils national defense. Likewise, the highlight of the previous Congress — the 2010 health care law — is a main target of Republican criticism, while the 2009 economic stimulus package has had too little apparent effect to provide campaign ammunition for Democrats. And the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul is not something likely to move the average voter one way or the other.

With Congressional job approval ratings running below 20 percent for more than a year now, it’s not surprising that Members of Congress are not doing much bragging about their accomplishments — let alone claiming that any of their own achievements in the recent past merit being returned to Washington for another term. Such boastfulness would have a hard time passing the voters’ metaphorical smell test. The electorate’s not particularly interested in the potential implications for the American economy of the European debt crisis or in a continuation of last year’s partisan battle over the size, cost and role of government; last summer’s debt limit deal appears to have taken a lot of steam out of the deficit debate. Yes, social issues will remain most important to some at the ideological edges, and parochial issues will play some role. The deep and intense divisions about the country’s decade-long “war on terror” have largely faded.  

And so incumbents from all regions of the country (and challengers and open-seat candidates as well) are planning to run more than anything on a simple message: that they and their party have the more credible formula for reducing unemployment and encouraging job-creating economic growth. What that will yield is a contest between the Republican effort to cast the president and his party as failed economic stewards and the Democratic portrayal of the GOP as improperly beholden to the wealthy.

The break from legislating that begins at the close of business on the first Friday in August will afford the candidates five weeks straight to test-market and refine those messages — and to augment them with whatever other talking points they have about job creation, health insurance, illegal immigration, energy prices, transportation projects or even support for Israel. Because so many House and Senate candidates are skipping the presidential nominating conventions — the Republicans will meet in Tampa, Fla., the last week before Labor Day, the Democrats in Charlotte, N.C., the week of the holiday — the next month will be the year’s longest period for uninterrupted Congressional campaigning. (Congress will probably recess only three, and at most four, full weeks before Election Day.)  

On the Offensive

While Republican Congressional leaders find time to criticize the Senate’s Democratic majority, particularly for not adopting a fiscal 2013 budget resolution, the focus of nearly every GOP press conference and press release is Obama’s alleged failure as a leader and his wrongheaded approach to the economy.

Although the president’s poll numbers are no worse than mediocre, Republicans see a focus on the administration’s record — particularly the health care law and the economy’s half-hearted recovery — as the best way to put Democratic Congressional candidates on the defensive. “This election is going to be a referendum on the president’s failed economic policies,” Boehner said at a campaign event and on CNN a month ago.

When Obama said at his June news conference that “the private sector is doing fine” — while the public sector has seen huge job losses — the GOP had a field day. Republicans portray the economy as sick and offer a platform of lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation of business and more domestic oil and gas production as a path to renewed prosperity.

Republicans were quick to jump on the most recent monthly employment figures, for June, blaming Obama and other Democrats for a persistent jobless rate above 8 percent and a sluggish rate of job creation. Republicans say they have used their majority muscle in the House to pass more than 30 jobs bills that have been ignored by the Senate’s Democratic majority. And the Republicans cast the president’s proposal to allow a scheduled income tax increase to take effect for individuals making at least $200,000 a year and couples making $250,000 as a tax hike on job creators.

“They don’t give a damn about middle-class Americans who are out there looking for work,” Boehner said two weeks ago. “What he’s trying to do is distract the American people in order to win his own re-election.”

A More Conventional Focus

Using Obama as their target-in-chief, Republicans are approaching this year’s elections in a more conventional way than the 2010 campaign played out. There is less tea party rhetoric than there was two years ago and less of a crusade against government and the political establishment. Controlling the House the past two years has inevitably undermined the GOP’s ability to talk about “taking back the country.”

Instead, Republicans are waging a more traditional campaign — touting their support for a Chamber of Commerce-style agenda including tax breaks, new limits on collective bargaining, removal of barriers to increased energy production and less government regulation across the board. Republican control of Congress next year will be all about stoking the economy with policies that benefit entrepreneurs, the Speaker said. “Frankly, we ought to be thanking them,” he told reporters two weeks ago. “We owe them a government that stays out of the way and gives them the freedom to grow and create jobs in the pursuit of the American dream.”

At least while they are in Washington, Republican lawmakers also support the effort led by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) to curb the cost of entitlement programs. House Republicans have twice adopted budget resolutions calling for conversion of Medicare to a subsidy program for private insurance. But it remains to be seen how willing Republicans will be to defend that fundamental remaking of the federal safety net when they’re out on the stump, where Democrats are portraying themselves as trustworthy protectors of not only the medical insurance program for the elderly, but of all other social programs as well — unemployment benefits, food stamps, Social Security and Medicaid.

Their safer course is to focus on Obama and the sluggish economy. The subtopics are unemployment, job creation, taxes, economic growth and increasing energy production.

Attacking ‘Obamacare’

The health care overhaul is second only to the current economic doldrums on the GOP’s list of grievances against the president. With a Supreme Court majority having upheld the law’s constitutionality, Congressional Republicans have shifted their criticism of Obama’s top legislative achievement by adopting the court’s language and labeling it a series of tax increases and a job destroyer that is undermining economic recovery.

“If you look at what the implications are for most Americans, it’s leading to higher costs and fewer jobs,” Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said. “Obamacare is something that as a country we simply cannot afford.”

Obama and Democratic leaders hope their rank-and-file Congressional candidates will be emboldened by the court’s ruling to embrace the health care law. “We urge you to seize this opportunity to go on the offense to illustrate how the president and Democrats in Congress  are standing up for the middle class,” senior re-election campaign adviser David Plouffe wrote in a memo to Congressional Democrats after the court ruling.

“I think if Republicans make as their No. 1 issue the repeal of health care, they are certainly going to lose the election in the House and the Senate and the presidency,” Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said. “The bottom line is most Americans are not for repeal,” an assertion not backed up by most polling.

Democrats are using online advertising to accuse some Republicans of defending the interests of insurance companies in the health care debate at the expense of patients. “House Republicans began their majority by voting to end Medicare for seniors, and they will end their majority by voting once again to repeal critical patient protections for the middle class,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said before the House’s vote this month for a bill that would repeal the law.

But Israel’s counterparts at the National Republican Congressional Committee are being just as aggressive in targeting Democrats in close races who voted against that legislation. “This is only the beginning of our campaign to hold Kathy Hochul accountable and ensure that New Yorkers are aware of the consequences of another Hochul-Obama term in office,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said in comments about one freshman in an uphill battle to hold on in a dramatically redrawn and generally conservative district.

Democrats’ Cautious Approach

Some red-state Democrats are keeping their distance from the president as Election Day approaches, but Congressional leaders say they are happy to be linked to the president. “He is an absolute boost to the ticket,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) insisted this month. “We’re very proud of President Obama, his leadership as president of the United States, his campaign for re-election. And he is a giant plus for us in that regard.”

As Obama attempts to define Romney as a wealthy capitalist out of touch with the working class, Democratic Congressional candidates are sounding a related appeal for economic populism. Their legislative approach includes taking some tax benefits away from the wealthy, from oil companies and from companies that move jobs overseas. And their rhetorical approach is to paint Republicans as deaf to the cries of the middle class while reminding voters it was their party that supported the government intervention that kept General Motors and Chrysler in business. They say the economy was losing jobs when Obama took office and has now posted job gains, however small, in 28 consecutive months.

To counter the Republican assault on the administration’s economic scorecard, Democrats have seized on their devotion to restoring domestic manufacturing. They complained loudly about the U.S. Olympic team’s Chinese-made outfits for the opening ceremonies and forced a floor vote this month on legislation that would have not only provided a tax break to firms that bring jobs back to the United States, but also prevented companies from counting the cost of moving jobs overseas as a business expense. The party knew the bill would be stopped by a GOP filibuster, but it nonetheless afforded a moment in the spotlight for two of its more endangered incumbents, sponsors Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio). And it had the added benefit of getting the only two Republican Senators seriously at risk of losing in November, Dean Heller (Nev.) and Scott Brown (Mass.), to more or less concede their electoral vulnerability by breaking ranks and voting for the proposal.

But there is no deviation from the GOP disdain for the 2009 economic stimulus package, which Republicans label a failure because it did not turn the economy around. And, on the Democratic side, there is little outright advocacy for any of the pillars of a liberal agenda — labor rights, gay rights, women’s rights, more money for schools, gun control, affirmative action, a single-payer health care system, protectionism, countercyclical jobs programs or a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

And while Democrats have targeted some vulnerable House Republican incumbents with ethics or campaign finance issues, there has been no outright appeal to voters to reject the hard-core conservatism that has been the GOP calling card the past two years.

As yet, Democrats have not chosen to remind voters of the House Republican majority’s role in helping push the nation to the brink of an economic crisis last summer before agreeing to allow an increase in the national debt limit needed to allow continued borrowing.

Some, but not all, Democrats are engaging with the Republicans on taxes. Republicans want to extend current income tax rates initially set in 2001 and 2003 and scheduled under current law to jump higher at year’s end. They describe their position as preventing a huge tax increase. Obama would retain current rates for everyone except the 2 percent or so with the highest annual incomes. Most Democrats appear to support the idea of making higher-income taxpayers pay more, but a significant number appear more comfortable setting the threshold higher.

The president and the Democrats can take most of the credit for the reduction of the Social Security payroll tax in 2011 and 2012.

Republicans, attempting to tap into voter anxiety over high gas prices, will be happy to put their advocacy of domestic oil and gas production up against the Democrats’ offering of alternative and renewable energy programs. Democrats feel they have the stronger hand on transportation policy, offering infrastructure projects to create jobs and criticizing GOP reluctance to provide necessary funding.

But there appears to be little room in this year’s campaigns for foreign affairs, whether it is the continuing U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, disputes with Pakistan and Iran or the challenges posed by China. Homeland security and the George W. Bush administration’s global war on terror has long since faded out of the political picture.