Skipping past Election Day and assuming that current trends hold up, 2011 will be an ugly year in Washington, featuring partisan warfare, gridlock and the possibility of a government shutdown, Republican bigfoot Vin Weber predicts, with a new Republican House majority looking nervously over its right shoulder while President Obama doubles down on his determination to be a “transformational” president.
Weber, the former Minnesota congressman, now a lobbyist and Republican insider, gave his report from Washington to a small audience at the Humphrey Institute Thursday afternoon, and offered his view of the Minnesota guv race as well.
The political moment
The worst of the bleeding is over for the Dems, Weber believes, but the damage is done and, although he predicts that the late Dem strategies will manage to rescue a few imperiled seats, the likeliest outcome will be a Repub takeover of the U.S. House with a small majority and falling just a senator or two short of taking control of the Senate. (The second likeliest outcome, he said, would be even bigger Repub gains.)
One fundamental cause of the Dem disaster, Weber said, was a “fundamental misreading” by Dems of the meaning of Obama’s big win in 2008. America is still a center-right nation, Weber said. The Dem/Obama surge reflected a country that was “just happy to have George W. Bush on a plane back to Texas,” but not a nation was ready to “turn the page ideologically” and adopt a series of liberal measures. The trillions of dollars of deficit spending of 2008-2010 – yes, Weber acknowledges that it started before Bush left town – left the electorate scared and worried, worn out by the pace of change, and susceptible to the current Republican promise to slam on the brakes.
Comparing the coming midterm earthquake to its most famous recent predecessors in 1982 (Ronald Reagan’s first midterm) and 1994 (Bill Clinton’s), Weber said this is a more ideological election based on that severe backlash against the Dems misreading.
The country has “moved further to the right in a shorter period than has happened in a long time,” Weber said, which is best reflected in poll results that show widespread public hostility to government spending and public debt and a near collapse of public confidence in the government’s ability to solve problems.
The bad economy plus this ideological shift constitute what Weber called the “macropolitics” of the moment, leading to Obama’s weak approval ratings and set the stage for the midterm much moreso than any particular campaign tactics or political messaging strategy.
Obama the “transformational”
When Clinton faced a similar disaster in his first midterm, he famously moved to the center and “triangulated” with the two parties in the House, announcing that the era of big government was over. But Weber recalled an interesting moment from 2008 when Obama got in some trouble for stating that Reagan had been a more “transformational” figure than Clinton. Obama sees himself as similarly transformational, and he will not triangulate, Weber predicted.
“This president has a different view of himself and his place in history,” Weber said. Obama will push for more change, and the kind of change he favors will continue to expand government and cost money.
But the Republican Party is also in the midst of a “transformation,” into a less pragmatic, more ideological, harder right, more libertarian party.
Obama will face a House dominated by “people who were elected by voters who are ready to throw out anyone who votes for any kind of spending or expansion of government,” Weber said. Every spending bill that comes along will cause those members to wonder whether this might be the one that will cost them their seats the way votes for TARP and the Obama stimulus measures appear to have ended the careers of long-serving members of Congress. Once you get into that mindset, Weber said, the safest, easiest vote on any spending bill is going to be “no.”
Republicans and conservatives generally have developed what Weber described as an “apocalyptic view” about the damage that Obama’s big health care bill will do to the U.S. health care system, the economy and America’s free market structure. A lot of congressional candidates are talking about a vote on the first day of the new Republican-led House to repeal the whole thing.
They won’t have the votes to do that, Weber said, considering the filibuster rules in the Senate and the certainty of a presidential veto. But after that big symbolic vote blows over, the anti-Obamacareites will resort to a guerilla campaign to “defund” the health care program, leading to “a lot of vetoes, a lot of battles and an undetermined outcome,” Weber predicted.
It will be a discordant, unpleasant 2011, Weber said, and there is no “silver lining,” but if there are a couple of “silver threads” one might be the work of the bipartisan debt commission that will, soon after Election Day, unveil its ideas for long-term fiscal sustainability. There is no chance that this will not be a political painfest, involving shrinkage of Social Security and Medicare, higher taxes and perhaps cuts to military spending.
Weber talks to the members of the commission and knows they will be putting out a very serious proposal. It’s possible that the commission will give Congress and the White House a once-in-a-generation chance to address a problem that badly needs addressing. But Weber also warned that if Obama insists on allowing the high-bracket portions of the Bush tax cuts to expire, he will undermine the chances of a big fiscal deal because Republicans will insist that the part of the fiscal package most painful to them – the higher taxes – has already occurred.
Emmer, Horner, Dayton
During the Q and A session, moderator Larry Jacobs sought Weber’s view of the Minnesota election for governor. Weber supported Emmer for the Repub endorsement and is still helping him. He says Emmer had a very bad summer, but the recent change in his leadership team has righted the ship and Emmer “has nowhere to go but up.”
Jacobs asked about Emmer’s refusal to put out a plan to address the state deficit. Weber said that the good government part of his brain knows that it is wrong to be so mysterious, that a candidate owes it to the public to say what he will be do if elected. But the political strategist said of his brain says “there’s almost no good that’s gonna come out of that.”
Weber described Tom Horner as an old friend and predicted that both major Twin Cities newspapers will end up endorsing him. He believes that if Horner makes a move up from his current poll ratings in the low teens in the upper teens, the next 5 to 8 percent of Horner voters will come from among those currently planning to vote for Dayton. (Weber didn’t say so, but if he’s right about that, it will also be a big boost for Emmer.)
Weber didn’t say much about Mark Dayton. He said – with a tone that suggested access to internal polling – that the enthusiasm gap among likely voters, which has been a tremendous boost for Republicans around the country, is significantly smaller in Minnesota than elsewhere. Dayton’s basic “tax the rich” message — which seems likely to excite the left base of the party but unlikely to create much appeal to moderates or conservatives – may have helped create and/or may benefit from the relatively higher enthusiasm among Dem likely voters in Minnesota.