Democrats brace for year of living dangerously

Published: Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 3:32 p.m.


This year will be a difficult one for Democrats. The only issue is how tough.

If conditions and circumstances take a negative turn, Democrats could lose 40 seats in the House and more than a half-dozen in the Senate in the November mid-term elections. With this prospect, any lingering clout enjoyed by President Barack Obama would evaporate.

If things break the right way for the Democrats, however, the congressional losses might be minimal - 15 to 20 in the House and several in the Senate - and the president, while weakened, would still govern with some authority.

As in economics, there are leading indicators in politics. For 2010, they are:

Health care: If, as expected, Congress gives final approval to a health-care bill over the next few weeks, the public perception will be crucial. Most of these policies won't take effect for several years, so initial impressions will be politically decisive.

The Obama White House has only mixed success in these communications wars. The administration lost on the stimulus package, which most economists think is successful but the public sees as largely ineffective and ridden with special- interest pork.

Jobs: High unemployment punishes the party in power. The levels and direction, however, matter, which is why Democrats were heartened by a better-than-expected report last month that showed the jobless rate dropping to 10 percent.

Ray Fair, an economist at Yale who for years has forecast elections based on economic models, sees Democrats winning about 50.5 percent of the popular vote in House races this fall, down from 53.4 percent in 2008. That suggests a loss of about 25 to 30 seats.

Casualties: How big an issue Afghanistan is in the off-year elections will hinge on American casualties, how many kids are coming back in body bags.

The Iraq War went off the radar screen and front pages as casualties dropped to 150 in 2009 from a high of 904 in 2007. Last year, for the first time, American losses in Afghanistan, at 319, exceeded those in Iraq.

If next year U.S. losses in Afghanistan approach the peak level in Iraq, public anxiety and antiwar feelings will escalate.

Retirements: In the House, it's easier to win an open seat with no incumbent than to topple an officeholder. Democrats currently enjoy a 257 to 178 majority in the House and a 60 to 40 advantage in the Senate, where two independents caucus with the majority party. To date, four House Democrats have announced their retirements, and Republicans like their prospects in each of those contests.

The Republicans' major impediment, however, may be internal struggles as conservatives mount challenges to front-running, more centrist candidates (and arguably stronger general-election candidates) in a few House districts and in Senate contests in Connecticut, Florida, California and Illinois. If these skirmishes become bitter, Republican prospects will dim.

Crisis: Obama will face one, most likely international; perhaps soon with the al-Qaida presence in Yemen. How he handles it will affect his party's performance in November. If a major crisis occurs and the president rises to the occasion, it will lift other Democrats.

Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News.

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