There’s a reason why the people who run campaigns are rarely the people responsible for implementing policy. The job of a campaign operative is to work in absolutes – you win or you lose, there’s no gray area. The job of a policy operative, of course, is to look for the gray, to look for solutions within the increasingly narrowing options of our polarized political system.
However, the way one wins a campaign ultimately determines how an incumbent and his/her party can (or cannot) legislate. And, the way that both sides have boxed themselves in on tough issues like immigration, entitlements, and climate change on the campaign trail ultimately leaves little room for any meaningful compromise in a 2015 Congress.
The New York Times reported this weekend on the fact that many Democratic Senate candidates have latched onto issues like Medicare and Social Security in an effort to woo older voters to their side. Unlike members of the so-called “Obama coalition” (young people, minorities, single women), older voters are some of the most dependable mid-term election participants. They have also become more reliably Republican in voting behavior. Since 1994, Democrats have lost among voters 65 and older in every mid-term but one (the 2006 wave election when they broke even with the GOP at 49 percent). The goal for Democrats isn’t necessarily to win them over. It’s to narrow the margin by which they lose them.
To do that, Democrats have been running ads attacking GOP candidates for threatening to dismantle the Social Security and Medicare safety net. According to CMAG’s Elizabeth Wilner, Democrats have run twice as many ads on the issues of Social Security and Medicare than Republicans (47,700 spots compared to 23,900 spots). And polling coming out of the battleground Senate races suggests that the strategy may be working.
In Iowa, where Democrats have been bashing Republican Joni Ernst for suggesting that privatizing Social Security was a possible option for reforming the entitlement program, the latest Fox News poll (September 14 - 16) finds Braley tied with Ernst at 41 percent but up 6 points among seniors.
In Arkansas, another place where Democrats have been attacking a Republican for supporting changes to Medicare, a CNN poll taken August 28 - September 2 showed Democrat Mark Pryor trailing Tom Cotton among those 65 and older by 6 points (52-46). In 2010, however, then-Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost seniors by 17 points.
Whether this tactic will be enough to win these tight races remains to be seen. What it will do, however, is prevent Democrats from being willing to engage in substantive discussions about entitlement reform. After all, what Democrat will be willing to even suggest even modest changes to Medicare or Social Security eligibility if they found how effective an attack it was in their own campaigns? Remember, the Democrats who are running these attacks are the so-called centrists in the party. These are the Senators who are the most willing to cross party lines and who are now boasting of their distance from the president.
This isn’t to say that Democrats are the only ones backing themselves in a corner on needed reform. Republicans know they have a problem attracting Latino voters to their ranks and yet we see so-called centrist Republicans like Scott Brown in New Hampshire using terms like “amnesty” to describe Senator Shaheen’s vote in support of the DREAM Act in 2010. If that’s how a blue state Republican is describing immigration reform, it certainly bodes poorly for the prospect of any meaningful legislation coming out of Congress in 2015.
This election is a base election. The job of campaign pros is to make sure that their candidates are giving their voters the red meat they need to remain engaged and turn out to vote. That’s politics. But, when those who are seen as the more moderate forces in the party are the ones doing the red meat politics, it means that there will be no one left in Congress to challenge their base to embrace needed reforms. What voters get, of course, is a more polarized Congress less willing to compromise than ever.