Obama can't escape the GOP

Why his plan to win back the House in '14 is such a long-shot -- and why Democrats shouldn't (necessarily) despair

Published March 4, 2013 2:32PM (EST)

On the campaign trail last year, President Obama spoke hopefully of scoring an electoral victory that might “break the fever” of reflexive and unyielding Republican opposition. And, to be fair, there has been a small amount of progress on this front, and there’s reason to believe that meaningful compromises on guns and immigration may yet take shape this year. It’s not like Obama has nothing to show for his reelection triumph.

But the limits of his mandate are coming into focus, with the onset of $1.2 trillion sequester that candidate Obama dismissed as an outcome that would never come to pass. The reason: House Republicans are adamantly opposed to any fiscal deal that involves more revenue – even if it’s in the form of tightened deductions and loopholes and even if it’s paired with cuts to entitlement programs. It’s a sign that Republicans, while they were shaken by their defeat at the polls, are still gripped by the same Tea Party economic philosophy that has defined them in the Obama-era and that the gap between the two parties on taxes, spending and the size of government may simply be unbridgegable.

This is the context in which to understand the Washington Post’s weekend report that the White House has committed itself to a full-scale push to win back the House in next year’s midterms – a feat that would require a net-gain of 17 seats. If Democrats were to pull off the feat (and to hold on to their Senate majority, which they would presumably do if they were to win big at the House level) it would potentially unleash in the last two years of Obama’s presidency a burst of legislative activity similar to that which marked his first two years in office.

But the task of winning back the House is, to put it mildly, formidable. In particular, there are three major obstacles that Obama and his party will be up against in 2014:

1. History: As a general rule, midterm elections – in both their first terms and their second terms – aren’t kind to incumbent presidents, even popular ones. Just two years after winning a 49-state landslide, for instance, Ronald Reagan watched his party lose control of the Senate and slip further into the minority in the House in 1986. Even when they defy history, the gains made by the White House party tend to be limited. When Democrats rode a popular backlash against the GOP’s effort to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998, their net gain in the House was five seats – a huge win for them, but far short of the 17 that Obama and his party need next year.

2. Geography: Much has been made of the roughly 1.5 million-vote advantage that Democratic candidates enjoyed over Republicans in House races last fall – a difference that nonetheless translated into a 234-201 GOP majority in the chamber. The reason for this is that the core Democratic vote is increasingly isolated geographically, with younger, non-white and college-educated voters packed into districts based in cities and metropolitan areas. Conversely, Republican voters are spread out more evenly over large tracts of suburban, exurban and rural areas. A generation ago, in the 1988 presidential election, Michael Dukakis was crushed by George H.W. Bush but still managed to win 819 counties across the country; in 2012, Obama won the national popular vote handily, but only carried 690 counties.

As ‘12 showed, this is enough for Democrats to win state-by-state. But break the country down by House district and it’s a different story. Mitt Romney actually would have beaten Obama in a district-by-district vote last November, 276-262. It would probably take a serious anti-GOP wave – think 2006 and 2008 – to make Democrats competitive in the districts they’d need to win to take back the chamber. For the White House party to generate that kind of momentum in a mid-term year would be unprecedented in modern politics.

Nor is there an abundance of obvious targets for Democrats in ’14. Just 16 Republican House members represent districts that the president carried in ’12. There are some very vulnerable Democratic seats, including seven from districts that have voted Republican in the last three presidential elections. Every Democratic seat that Republicans pick off next year will add to the Democrats’ magic number of 17.

3. Turnout: We’ve seen the Democrats’ "coalition of the ascendant” – young, nonwhite, and college-educated voters – turn out in droves for two straight presidential elections. We also saw it stay home in the 2010 midterms and in some key races in 2009. We also saw the Republican base mobilize for the ’10 vote. To make any gains next year, Democrats will need to solve the mystery of how to motivate Obama’s voters for a non-presidential year election. It would also help if the GOP’s base is depressed, perhaps as a result of infighting over the party’s future.

This could happen, for all we know, but it also underscores Blake Zeff's argument that Obama and Democrats left winnable seats on the table last fall by not focusing on the House aggressively enough. Last year, there was no doubt that core Democratic voters would head to the polls; the only question was of magnitude – would their turnout just be big, or would it be huge? In ’14, though, there’s a lot more uncertainty.

* * *

It’s just not likely that Democrats will win back the House next year, or even come that close. Which means that Obama is probably stuck with at least one Republican-controlled chamber for the rest of his presidency – which, in turn, means that the huge legislative strides of 2009 and 2010 probably won’t be repeated over the next four years.

But not all is lost for Democrats, because while it’s true that House Republicans are just as obstinate as ever on revenue, there are some real cracks in the GOP that are starting to show. Three times this year, under pressure from members from marginal districts and from party leaders who worry about their brand’s image, Speaker John Boehner has allowed to the floor legislation that has passed on the strength of Democratic votes. We saw this most recently last week with the Violence Against Women Act, and also with Sandy aid and the fiscal cliff deal. And on guns and immigration, there are Republican voices speaking up for compromise in a way that would have been unthinkable during Obama’s first term. As the New York Times’ Richard Stevenson put it today, right now “the only issue that truly unites Republicans is a commitment to shrinking the federal government through spending cuts, low taxes and less regulation.”

That’s still a lot of policy terrain for the GOP to be digging its heels in on. And as long as the Republicans maintain a Tea Party posture on fiscal issues, Obama’s second term will be a frustrating one for Democrats. But it probably won’t be as frustrating as the second half of his first term. This time around, there appears to be enough dissension and enough nervousness within the GOP’s ranks for the White House to rack up some real achievements. So while winning back the House is the ideal scenario for Democrats, they might want to pursue a back-up plan too, one aimed at ratcheting up the turmoil within the GOP and creating more openings for compromise.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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