Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 2010 28 Tishrei, 5771
Obama Should Turn Deaf Ear to Bill Clinton
By Roger Simon
The term supposedly dates from when Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon's chief negotiator in the talks to end the Vietnam War, announced, "Peace is at hand," 12 days before the 1972 presidential election.
Since then, there have been October surprises involving hostage release deals, sex scandals and criminal indictments.
But this month, Democrats pray for and Republicans dread anything that upsets the conventional wisdom that Democrats are going to get swamped in the House and hang onto the Senate by just a few seats on Nov. 2.
In an age in which polling dominates the political world and, therefore, results are never supposed to be surprising, October surprises are especially feared. It took me only a few mouse clicks to find a website that raised the specter of President Barack Obama secretly arranging a terrorist attack on the United States in order to rally support around him and his party in these last weeks before the election.
Democrats fear something more sane: The economy stinks, the president's approval rating remains low (according to the very dependable RealClearPolitics poll average, Obama is at 45.4 percent), and the party that holds the White House nearly always loses seats in midterm elections.
So I call Democrats who keep an eye on politics to see if they were mired in gloom or awaiting an October surprise that was going to lift their hearts. I was determined to call somebody in each time zone, although nobody actually lives in the Mountain time zone (OK, 5 percent of the U.S. population lives there, though that is mostly people from the East Coast and California living in ski lodges or on trophy ranches.)
Fortunately for me, however, Obama's chief pollster, Joel Benenson, was in Denver when I found him, so I am going to count that.
But let's start with the East Coast and march west. So we begin with Steve Elmendorf, a Washington political consultant, who was chief of staff to House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt and deputy campaign manager for Sen. John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004.
"An economic surprise is not going to happen; unemployment is not going to change dramatically," Elmendorf said. "But the Democrats will come back the closer we get to Election Day. Hardcore voters become focused, and they turn back to you. Independents being out of reach, you have to get the base back.
"Obama is doing that, and it also happens naturally. Not all is lost. The question is, will it be enough?"
I mentioned to Elmendorf the Gallup Poll analysis that "presidents below 50 percent approval at the time of midterm elections typically see their party lose a substantial number of seats."
"It's a very challenging environment," Elmendorf said. "For us to do better, we need Obama to do better."
While Elmendorf knows people who are predicting the Democrats will lose 80 seats in the House — a turnover of 39 seats would give Republicans a majority — he thinks "it will be a five seat margin either way."
Elmendorf remains cautiously — very cautiously — optimistic. "I think we will hold onto the Senate and the House," he said. "I am the kind of guy who sees the glass half full."
Gordon Fischer is a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party and was the Iowa co-chair of Obama's presidential campaign, endorsing and working tirelessly for Obama when Obama's victory in that state was very far from certain.
"Voters are angry, but not blinded by anger," Fischer said. "The make-up of the Republican Party is almost scary to some of us. The whole Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin wing is ascendant. They seem shrill and extreme. And they seem that way because they are.
"The view on Obama is a pretty mixed bag. Feelings used to be strong for him in Iowa, but the economy has affected things. People are really hurting. It's getting better, but very slowly."
So how do the Democrats pull off an October surprise?
"If anything is going to come about," Fischer said, "Democrats are going to have to identify clearly who they are and who the Republicans are: the past vs. the future, growing the economy vs. not growing the economy, passing health care and a more multinational view on defense.
"It's pretty volatile," he concluded. "I have a sense the election is not going to be a disaster. We'll see."
Joel Benenson polls for Barack Obama and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, among others.
"I think holding onto the House and Senate are within the realm of the possible," he said. "I think there could be an October surprise with results that will be very counter to the (current) narrative.
"Every day you see it. People are getting engaged again — young voters, Latino voters — the president is definitely galvanizing people to get engaged, and that is going to be good for Democrats in November."
"I think the Democrats hold the Senate; the House is a lot more debatable," Benenson said. "I think it will be very close on Election Day."
A five-seat margin? I asked.
"I think it could be tighter than that," Benenson said. "Could the Democrats hold it by one seat? Yeah."
I mentioned to him the Gallup analysis of presidents with low approval having "substantial" losses in the midterms.
"There are different dynamics in each of these elections; there is no pattern," Benenson said, and then added derisively, "Gallup has a lot of theories; they poll every day, and they want you to believe people change their minds every day."
Chris Lehane did opposition research in the Clinton White House and was the press secretary for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. He is now a consultant living in San Francisco.
"The first term midterm is always tough, and we've got 9.5 percent unemployment," Lehane said. "The Democrats are doing a damn good job of governing, and they don't get credit for it."
"There is a lack of a bigger, broader idea of where they are taking the country," Lehane said, and then he listed the abc's of what the Obama administration should be providing:
A. "What is government's role in today's society?"
B. "Something that can fit on a bumper sticker about where the country is going. For FDR, it was the New Deal. For Reagan, it was Stay the Course. For Clinton, it was Putting People First. For Obama, it could have been Saving the American Dream."
C. "The president has to be saving the American people from a threat internal or external. For Teddy Roosevelt, it was the trusts. For FDR, it was fascism. For Reagan, it was the evil empire. For Obam,a it could be Main Street vs. Wall Street or fighting to keep China and other countries from taking our jobs.
"Obama believes in American exceptionalism: We're down, but we will come back better. He believes it, and they think they have talked about it, but it doesn't break through outside Washington."
Lehane believes that there can be an October surprise, however. Though it may not necessarily be this October.
"There is an enormous reservoir of good will for Obama, and in the polls he gets high marks for trust and honesty," Lehane said. "You can use that to rebound even in three and a half weeks. We are in a period of rollercoaster politics, and the Republicans are perceived as far worse than the Democrats. The public really doesn't like either party.
"And this gives Obama a chance," Lehane concluded. "After the election, he can have a big second bite of the apple."
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© 2009, Creators Syndicate