Jonathan Cohn

Why Dems Are Happy About the Primaries and I'm Not

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The early spin on last night's primaries is that it was a good night for the Democrats, largely because Republican voters in four states rallied behind candidates who, in the words of Politico, are "tarnished by scandal, gaffes or some other significant vulnerability." And when you think about the likes of Linda McMahon, the World Wrestling tycoon, running for the Senate from Connecticut, the spin makes a lot of sense.

This morning McMahon was on "Good Morning America" and host George Stephanopoulos asked her whether she regretted anything she did during her tenure at WWE. As McMahon was dodging the question, by talking up the charity work the company had done, ABC rolled a clip of her in the wrestling ring, kicking a contestant in the shins. Throw in the misogyny of pro wrestling and I just don't see how Connecticut votes for her. (Click here to subscribe to The New Republic.)

But something else on the GMA broadcast got my attention--and not in a good way.

Stephanopoulos' other guest was Michael Bennet, the Democratic senator from Colorado, who'd just beaten insurgent Democrat Andrew Romanoff. Stephanopoulos put to Bennet the questions Republicans are already asking--namely, how does he defend his votes for health care reform, the stimulus, and other items on the Obama agenda? Bennet responded by dodging the question every bit as brazenly as McMahaon had hers, instead talking about the Republicans and their lack of a positive agenda.

Now, this was a brief interview, apparently taped last night not long after the results came in. Given time, perhaps Bennet would have made a more explicit and direct defense of those votes. And maybe this isn't so indicative of the way he's run, or will run, his campaign. Honestly, I haven't followed the Colorado race very closely. (Also on TNR: Can We Trust People Who Find God on Their Deathbeds?)

But Bennet's answer seems to be of a piece with what I understand to be the basic Democratic strategy for the midterms: Make this about the Republicans and their lack of fitness for office.

And that worries me for two reasons. First, it's a sign of how weak Democrats seem to be politically right now. It's just not a good sign when candidates have to run, as far and as fast as they can, from their party's agenda. And while I'd expect Democrats to do that in the deep South, Colorado is a swing state that's been trending Democratic and voted for Obama in 2008.

Second, I just don't have a lot of faith in this strategy. When a candidate's argument is all about why the other guy is worse, it doesn't exactly build up voter confidence. And if the candidate is an incumbent, I fear, a lot of voters will eventually decide some kind of change is better than the status quo.

This is the place where I usually remind readers that I could be totally wrong--that I am a lot less comfortable second-guessing strategy than I am second-guessing policy. If Bennet and other Democrats are making the campaign all about the Republicans, presumably that's because strategist who know a heck of a lot more than I do have run the different scenarios and determined this is the best way to win.

But over the last two years, in particular, I've come to realize that political strategists don't always know what they're talking about. What would happen if Bennet answered the Stephanopoulos question differently--what if he said, yes, I voted for the stimulus because it created a bunch of jobs and kept us from falling into a full-blown depression, while giving Colorado a ton of good public works? What if he said, yes, I voted for health care because it means that it means middle class people won't have to worry so much about their medical bills--or fear the possibility they'd get sick with no way of paying for treatment?

The strategists would say those are no-no's, because the laws are unpopular and voters hate spending. I'm not so sure a smart argument like that wouldn't win over at least some skeptics, and put Democrats in better standing.

Or maybe not. Like I said, I could be totally wrong. The bottom line is that Democrats are still in a lot of trouble, notwithstanding last night's results.

The one silver lining, I think, is that Republicans seem to be running a mirror strategy, making it all about the Democrats. The cliche in politics is that you can't beat something with nothing. But maybe you can beat nothing with nothing.

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