One of the impressive things about the Obama campaign, and Democrats in general this cycle, is its aggressiveness in going after not just a win, but a wide, convincing win. Obama is doing this by actually implementing a 50 State Strategy, which is just about unprecedented in modern campaigning. Democrats in the Senate are going wide by explicitly aiming for 11 GOP held seats, which give the Democrats 62 Senate seats, an unfilibusterable majority and the largest for either party since 1967.
I think what the Obama campaign is going for here is linked to two points made by Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. Yglesias:
If Obama wins the election, marginal Democratic members of congress will face a basic choice. They can decide that their political interests will be served by making the Obama administration a “success” and agree to pass stuff that resembles what he’s proposed. Or they can decide that their interests will be served by distancing themselves from every controversial administration initiative. If they choose the former, marginal Republicans will feel pressure to get on board. If they choose the latter, marginal Republicans will stand firm. What will happen? I’m not sure. The ideological distance within the party is much narrower than in 1977 and 1993, but I worry that the incentives are still bad and encourage defection rather than discipline. Either way, though, I think the key decision-makers will be in congress rather than in the White House.
We talked a lot in the presidential primary about theories of change, but the simplest theory of change is 60 votes in the Senate.
I don’t know that it will necessarily take 60 Democrats in the Senate to implement a President Obama’s agenda, but that would be the easiest way. However, winning 9 GOP held seats is a tall task, even given the favorable environment for Democrats. The real key to being able to get anything done is a President’s ability to build political coalitions. That task becomes much, much easier after the type of resounding win that Obama and the Senate Democrats are aiming for than after a narrow win. In running in all 50 states Obama’s clear goal is to run up his margin of victory in places like New England, New York and California while holding his margin of defeat down in states like Texas, Alabama and Alaska. That is a mirror of Bush’s strategy from 2004, where he invested a lot of effort into running up the margins in conservative areas.
The real consequence of such a strategy is a large margin in the popular vote, which is useless in terms of getting elected but essential to governing. A President can’t really do anything without a mandate. Winning the popular vote is the only way to really achieve a mandate. In 1980 Reagan won a convincing majority on an agenda of tax cuts. Lo and behold he was able to pick off a lot of Democrats to vote for his tax cuts and keep the rest from filibustering. In 1992 Clinton won, but won without getting a majority of the popular vote. Republicans in Congress responded by holding firm against his healthcare, spending and social agenda.
To me, the clearest path to 60 votes in the Senate isn’t winning all 9 seats but rather winning several and giving a lot of supposedly safe Republicans uncomfortably close elections, combined with a relatively convincing majority in the popular vote for Obama. Does anyone really think that Republicans like George Voinovich or Judd Gregg, let alone Arlen Specter or Olympia Snowe, will go along with filibusters against popular Democratic legislation after watching a dozen or so of their colleagues be voted out in 4 years and facing off with a President who has the majority of the public behind him? Even hard line ideologues like Jim Demint and Tom Coburn would have second thoughts if Democrats run beat expectations but still lose in places like North Carolina, Texas or Mississippi.
The single best way to get good legislation through the Senate is to do what the Republicans did for years to Democrats; convince the other side that they will lose elections if they vocally oppose Democratic proposals. When Republicans appeared ascendant there was a cottage industry for Democrats like Max Baucus, John Breaux and Zell Miller who were afraid of voting with Democrats for fear of losing. Hence, Democrats were rarely able to stop Republican legislation.
Fear is healthy for legislators. Winning wide majorities is the way to provide them with it.