Post-election Democrats will push popular agenda, appeal to moderates, expert says

If Democrats want to expand their House and Senate majorities, they need to protect new members who were elected from Republican-leaning districts while showing they can govern by passing a limited popular agenda, suggests Steven S. Smith, a congressional expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

Steven Smith
Steven Smith

“Satisfying the base while appealing to moderates is squarely the central strategic problem for both parties in the new Congress,” says Smith, the Kate M. Gregg Professor of Social Sciences in Arts & Sciences. “Both parties recognize that they were able to retain the support of their traditional bases but Democrats won handily among moderates and independents.”

National exit polls taken during the recent mid-term elections show that moderates preferred Democrats over Republicans 61 to 38 in U.S. House races and that Independents favored Democrats over Republicans 57-39, notes Smith, the author of five books on congressional politics and director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University.

“Clear majorities of moderates and independents disapprove of the president’s performance and his Iraq policy,” Smith says. “The president’s emphasis on the war on terrorism was not a successful strategy for winning congressional races.”

The Democratic formula for success, says Smith, will likely include:

  • focus on popular measures, retain appeal to moderates
  • defer to the Iraq Survey Group (Baker commission)
  • demonstrate ability to pass legislation
  • do not give President Bush victories without major concessions
  • insist that Bush remains driven by ideological goals
  • expose Republican weaknesses through hearings

Republicans, as the losing party, will likely struggle to reach consensus on what lessons can be drawn for their poor showing in the mid-term elections.

“In the next few months,” says Smith, “they will argue about whether the party has lost sight of principles reflected in the 1994 Contract with America, whether the party lost simply because of mismanagement or bad luck in Iraq, or whether the party needs to develop a more moderate image generally.”

Smith expects Republicans to focus, at least in the first half of the new Congress, on helping President Bush regain his political footing.

The Republican formula, says Smith, is likely to be:

  • be supportive of compromise on popular legislation, compete for support of moderates
  • refocus on fiscal responsibility, still popular with moderates
  • allow a few liberal measures to pass so that they can be vetoed
  • selectively block action on the most liberal legislation