Campaign finance reform and Democrats’ midterm playbook
Having failed to receive the support of a single Republican, Democrats’ campaign finance reform bill, the DISCLOSE Act, seems now to be banished to legislative limbo and their efforts in bringing the bill to a vote all in vain. Indeed, it was hard to see how Democrats thought they would be able to squeak out a win in the first place.
All along Reid and Schumer needed at least one Republican and all of the usual suspects seemed unlikely for some time. Scott Brown spelled out his opposition to the bill back on July 14. And both Snowe and Collins had expressed not inconsiderable amounts of skepticism in regards to the bill well in advance of the lead up to yesterday’s vote.
So then why, after the care and attention paid to health care and financial reform, bring a bill forward that, despite last minute horse racing, seemed doomed to failure all along?
Over at the New York Times The Caucus, Dalia Sussman notes that while public polling seemed to indicate strong support for the bill, which was designed to address some of the financing concerned raised by the Supreme Court’s overwhelmingly unpopular decision in Citizens United, Democrats’ failed efforts are unlikely to give them much traction at the polls in November,
Nevertheless, as Americans’ concerns are mainly focused on the economy and unemployment, it seems highly unlikely that campaign finance reform will be an important issue for them in the upcoming midterm elections. Indeed, the issue is a tough enough sell in elections during a good economy. A September 2000 ABC News/Washington Post poll tested the importance of 17 issues to people’s vote decision that year. Where did campaign finance reform rank? Dead last.
The answer, I think, is that it’s all in the narrative.
Despite two consecutive weekly polls by Gallup showing Democrats edging out Republicans on the generic ballot, Democrats are still a party without a compelling story for November. In an email about the Callup numbers, well respected pollster J. Ann Selzer of Public opinon research firm Selzer and Company reflected that, “until other polls show something similar this will be treated as an outlier, I would think.”
Selzer’s analysis puts a substantial damper on the idea that Democrats had finally found a rhetorical foothold with the anti-Wall Street that had accompanied the passage of financial regulation reform concurrent with the jump noted by Gallup.
A separate poll by Gallup just two weeks ago bears out the obvious conclusion that voters are primarily concerned with economic issues and jobs heading into November. The July 14 poll shows that 31% of respondents felt that, “the economy in general,” was the “most important problem facing [the] country today.” A close second was, “unemployment/jobs,” clocking in at 22%. That’s an overwhelming 53% citing economic concerns as the biggest problem facing the country in their estimation.
However, the third most important issue may help to shed some light on the Democratic strategy heading into November. At an admittedly somewhat distant third (11%) was, “dissatisfaction with government/Congress/politicians; poor leadership; corruption; abuse of power.” In bringing the DISCLOSE Act to a vote, Democrats seem to be attempting to enact a win-win strategy with regards to legislative efforts by tying economic concerns and government gridlock together.
Poll after poll has shown that, despite what most Democrats would describe as their best — and the White House is describing as successful — efforts at dealing with the economic challenges facing the country, a majority of Americans do not feel that the President’s and Democrats’ economic programs have either helped or hurt them. And Democrats are smart enough to know that a.) nothing they do between now and November is likely to change that sentiment and b.) economic conditions in the country are not likely to turn around such that they affect that mood by November.
So rather than attempting the impossible task of changing the opinions people have formed based on their current life experiences, Democrats have, perhaps, decided their best strategy is to pin the failures on Republican obstructionism. This is a war cry that has been sounded for some time now. But in an electoral situation that seems as perilous as Novembers, Democrats might just see it as their only plausible hail mary.
The strategy would run: bring as many bills up for vote between now and November as possible, particularly those that have broad pubic support. If a handful of Senate Republicans decide to break ranks and pass the bill, great, add it to the list of legislative accomplishments Democrats offer to the voters in November. If, as with the DISCLOSE Act, Senate Republicans rebuff Democrats, great, add it to the list of bills on which Republicans refused to work with Democrats.
Of course, bills like the DISCLOSE Act have nothing to do with jobs, but that isn’t really the point of the strategy. The thrust of the strategy would be to lead with talk about jobs and talk about how Democrats would have liked to have done more, but then note that Republicans simply made that impossible. Likely Democrats will first point to instances like Jim Bunning’s one-man wrecking crew on the extension of unemployment benefits and then start looking to present as many other instances of obstructionism as possible, whether they have to do with jobs or not.
Needless to say, the longer the list, the more compelling the argument that Republicans are to blame for the current woes facing voters. All things considered, this may actually represent Democrats best chances at staying in power.
So don’t be surprised if you see a flurry of legislative activity over the next few months. It may well all be part of Democrats’ plan to beat Republicans electorally, win-lose-or-draw legislatively.