Looking solely at generic-ballot polls, Democrats look like they're in pretty good shape in 2014, enjoying consistent advantages over Republicans for most of the year. Of course, the problem is that the generic-ballot polls mask every pertinent detail: structural factors, geographic imbalance, gerrymandered districts, voter-suppression efforts, and the nagging fact that Democratic voters don't like to show up for midterm elections.
That last point appears to be an area of acute concern to party leaders. President Obama himself said last week that "one challenge that I always offered to Democrats is we do have one congenital disease, which is we're not very good during off-year elections."
And yet, with 111 days to go, congressional Democratic officials remain "absolutely" confident.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told The Washington Post Tuesday that her goal is to win 25 seats this November -- a bold statement given that historical trends suggest that the party of a sitting president usually loses seats in the sixth year of his term.
Political forecasters generally agree that Republicans will expand their majority in November.
Democrats will need a net gain of 17 seats, which is no small task given the circumstances.
"We're playing in about 70 districts," Pelosi told the Post. "Twenty-five is my goal -- I would like that. Seventeen is our must. I think we win 17 of those seats. We won 16 in the last election, but we lost eight. As [DCCC Chairman Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.)] says, you don't add by subtracting. Nobody knows. Nobody knows."
What Pelosi does know, however, is that there's probably value in letting voters know what Democrats would do with the ability to govern.
It's hard to complain when Congress actually prevents a disaster, but the resolution of the fight over the Highway Trust Fund isn't exactly a striking legislative achievement.
The House passed a bill on Tuesday that would keep federal highway and bridge construction funded through May, averting a funding crisis that would have stalled infrastructure projects across the country and cost construction jobs.
The $11 billion stopgap bill, which is expected to pass the Senate and receive the president's signature, is funded in part by a tweak to the federal pension system -- a workaround that both liberals and conservatives have criticized.
The final vote was 367 to 55, thanks to a a lopsided, bipartisan majority.
The one thing -- the only thing -- that all the relevant policymakers agreed on was that disaster wasn't an option and allowing the fund to exhaust all of its resources would not happen. This was itself an interesting twist, not only because bipartisan agreement is so usual, but also because far-right activist groups like Heritage Action condemned the bill, and pretty much everyone on Capitol Hill ignored them.
Why? Because voters in conservative districts like to drive on paved roads, bridges, and highways, too.
But the closer one looks, the messier this becomes. The House version kicks the can down the road -- Congress will have to tackle this same policy again next May -- by relying on a policy called "pension smoothing." I'll spare you the wonky details again -- read Josh Barro's explanation from the other day -- but note that Republicans condemned this exact same funding approach just a couple of months ago as an irresponsible gimmick.
GOP lawmakers this week changed their minds, not on the merits, but because the alternative was a tax hike the party refused to consider.
So why are Democrats going along with this? Because time is running out and they don't see any other credible alternative.
In October 2013, House Republicans demanded a briefing from the White House on the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, then skipped the White House briefing they requested. In June 2014, Senate Republicans demanded a information on Bowe Bergdahl's release, but skipped the classified briefing on Bowe Bergdahl's release.
All of which leads us to yesterday, when House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) demanded information from the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, which the far-right lawmaker suspects of wrongdoing. Administration officials went to Capitol Hill yesterday to answer questions and provide a detailed account of the office's actions.
"Guess who didn't even bother to show-up? One guess. Correct, no Issa," a Democratic source said.
The Democratic source said staff briefed Issa's staff for an hour and 15 minutes and answered every question -- 45 in all -- until they stopped. "I do think it's fairly remarkable, that if Issa wants to be seen as genuinely caring about the issue (and not just cameras), that he didn't even bother to attend. I would love to know what his staff says he was doing instead," the source said.
The congressman's staff hasn't explained his decision to skip the briefing, which included the answers to questions Issa claims to want so desperately.
But making matters worse, Issa refused to drop the reckless subpoena of White House political adviser David Simas, even after administration officials answered literally every question Issa's aides had.
Two years ago, there probably wasn't too much Republicans could do to win over younger voters, who tend to be more progressive than other generations, but Mitt Romney certainly didn't help matters with his education platform.
As the GOP's presidential nominee told voters in 2012, young people who can't afford to go to the college of their choice should simply "shop around" for some other, cheaper institution: "I know it is very tempting as a politician to go out and say, 'You know what, I'll just give you some money. The government's just going to give you some money and pay back your loans for you.' I'm not going to tell you something that's not the truth."
In this scenario, young people would be on their own. If a student comes from a wealthy family, he or she would have the resources to pay for higher ed. If not, well, perhaps the student should have picked wealthier parents, because a Romney administration wouldn't help with Pell Grants or student loans.
President Obama won the youth vote by 23 points.
Two years later, the party's position doesn't seem to have changed much. Amanda Terkel reported yesterday:
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seemed to have little sympathy for students who have accumulated massive amounts of student debt during a town hall with constituents last week. Instead of looking to the government to forgive their debt, he said, they should start looking at schools that are cheaper. [...]
"I think the best short-term solution is for parents to be very cost-conscious in shopping around for higher education alternatives. Not everybody needs to go to Yale. I don't know about you guys, but I went to a regular ol' Kentucky college. And some people would say I've done okay."
He added, "There are a lot of low-cost options that I hope more and more kids will take advantage of."
We are, in other words, back to the "shop around" plan.
An interesting intra-party debate has unfolded in Republican circles recently over whether or not to pursue impeachment against President Obama. At a distance, GOP officials appear to be divided into three separate groups.
The first is shouting, "Impeach!" without much regard for consequences or merit. The second is responding, "Sue him instead!" as an apparent attempt at placating Republican extremists. The third contingent agrees with the first group, and would love to impeach for reasons that no one seems able to explain, but fears political blowback and realizes the Senate wouldn't remove the president from office. For this faction, the crusade just isn't worth the effort.
But yesterday, one Texas congressman put a new spin on this third group's message, saying Obama "definitely deserves" to be impeached -- again, no one knows why -- but House Republicans can't pursue this because they don't have time.
Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) was somewhat more sympathetic to the idea but even he opposed initiating impeachment proceedings "right now," arguing that the House is too busy to get to it.
"The president deserves to be impeached. Plain and simple," he said. "But ... we have so much on our plate that it's not practical."
This isn't a good argument. It is, however, an unintentionally hilarious argument.
Almost immediately after President Obama unveiled his plan to resolve the border crisis, congressional Republicans balked. There were, House Speaker John Boehner complained, no provisions in the plan about sending National Guard troops to the border.
A week later, the president was in Texas, where he met with a variety of state officials, including Gov. Rick Perry (R). The Republican governor emphasized one point above all others: he wants Obama to deploy National Guard troops to the border.
GOP policymakers may not have thought this one through. In fact, Greg Sargent talked to the head of the National Guard under the Bush/Cheney administration, who offered a valuable perspective.
[I]n an interview today, the head of the National Guard under George W. Bush said he had not yet heard a clear rationale for sending in the Guard and suggested it might not be the appropriate response to the problems at the core of the current crisis, though he did say he could envision the Guard playing some sort of part in a broader solution.
"Until mission requirements are clearly defined, it can't be determined whether this is an appropriate use of the Guard in this particular case," H. Steven Blum, who was the Chief of the National Guard Bureau from 2003 to 2009 and has been a career military man for decades, told me. "There may be many other organizations that might more appropriately be called upon. If you're talking about search and rescue, maintaining the rule of law or restoring conditions back to normal after a natural disaster or a catastrophe, the Guard is superbly suited to that. I'm not so sure that what we're dealing with in scope and causation right now would make it the ideal choice."
That seems to be an exceedingly polite way of saying, "Republican demands don't seem to make any sense."
Some of this seems to be the result of GOP confusion about the nature of the story itself. Many Republicans seem to believe this is a border-security crisis, which the National Guard can help address directly.
But that's not consistent with the facts on the ground.
Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) found herself in an awkward spot yesterday when a report surfaced quoting the congresswoman making some very controversial comments about women. At a forum on Republican "messaging," Ellmers reportedly said that men "talk about things on a much higher level," so GOP officials should "bring it down to a woman's level."
Soon after, the North Carolinian's office complained that Ellmers' comments had been "taken completely out of context" by "a liberal woman reporter."
The latter point was plainly untrue. The original report was published by the Washington Examiner, a conservative outlet, and written by Ashe Schow, a Republican and former Heritage Foundation staffer. Ellmers' office may not have liked Schow's report, but to dismiss her as "a liberal woman reporter" was wrong.
But what about the former? It seems like a knowable thing -- either Ellmers was "taken completely out of context" or she wasn't. With this in mind, Schow published a second report late yesterday with an audio clip and a lengthy transcript.
"Especially moms, you know we balance so many different things, you know. Or school. Think about what many of you are doing, you know, you're trying to maintain that job, you know, you've got to be moving up in your career. All these different things are coming in at the same time.
"Men do tend to talk about things on a much higher level. You know, one of the things that has always been one of my frustrations and I speak about this all the time -- many of my male colleagues, when they go to the House floor, you know, they've got some pie chart or graph behind them and they're talking about trillions of dollars and, you know, how the debt is awful and, you know, we all agree with that.
"But by starting off that discussion that way, we've already turned people away. Because it's like 'that doesn't affect my life, I don't understand how that affects my life.'"
From there, Ellmers said Republicans need to be "engaging individuals on their level," adding that GOP men should "bring it down to a woman's level."
Does this context make the quote less offensive? Well, it depends.
José Díaz-Balart, news anchor for Telemundo and MSNBC host, talks with Steve Kornacki about why the influx of immigrants from Central America should be treated as a humanitarian emergency ill served by political grandstanding. watch
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, co-author of the Women's Health Protection Act, talks with Steve Kornacki about why Republican claims that restrictive legislation targeting women's health options do more harm than good for women they claim to help. watch
Dave Helling, columnist for the Kansas City Star, talks with Steve Kornacki about the Republican mutiny against Kansas governor Sam Brownback over the fiscal disaster his tax cut policies have caused to the state. watch
Steve Kornacki establishes and cuts the opening ribbon on The Canned Response Repetition Hall of Fame, inducting Florida governor Rick Scott as the latest member for his deer-in-the-headlights repetition of an answer to a question he didn't seem to... watch