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Friday, September 22, 2006

Slate: May the Best Man Lose

Should anyone want to win the November election?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.
the 2006 midterm elections less than two months away, a growing number
of Republicans are desperately hoping that their party will …
get its head handed back on a plate. The fashionable conservative
theory of the moment is that Republicans would be better off losing
control of the House, maybe even the Senate, too—and perhaps even the White House in 2008 while they're at it.

is no comparable whooping for defeat on the other side. Democrats
universally hold to the prosaic, uncontorted position that it would be
good for them to win control of Congress in November and bad for them
to lose.

As a matter of political logic, both sides cannot be right. Party politics being a zero-sum affair, game theory
dictates that if Republicans are better off losing the next election,
Democrats cannot be better off winning it. If the conservative theory
is correct, the election should be a race to the bottom. link below >>>


is possible that the Republican defeatists are merely offering in
advance a rationalization for a loss they expect in November, even if
the latest polls and Slate's mathematician
offer some encouragement for them to think they'll retain control of
the House. And some Republicans—including several who contributed
to a forum in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly—are
primarily making a substantive point about how the GOP has abandoned
its principles. They argue that Republicans, who have controlled the
House since the 1994 Gingrich revolution, need to be punished for their
corruption and pork-barrel excess. Out of power, some principled
conservatives hope, their party might learn to stand for something

But to several other conservative analysts, the case for defeat is explicitly political. National Review writers Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru,
among others, think Republicans really would win strategically by
losing this election (or, if you prefer, lose by winning it). These
conservatives tend to fixate on how popular Republicans would be
fighting off lefty hate-figures,
including would-be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and the putative
committee chairmen John Conyers, Charles Rangel, and Alcee Hastings.
(It is entirely coincidental that three of the GOP's four favorite
bogeymen are black.) Strategically minded Republicans expect that soon
after assuming power, the Democrats would launch a partisan jihad
against President Bush, and that the hearings and harassment would
backfire. Right-wingers also hope Democrats will initiate impeachment
proceedings against George W. Bush, repeating the very mistake
Republicans made with Bill Clinton in 1998.

None of this
conservative contrarianism seems to have infected the other side. At
the moment, there are no Democrats calling for anything other than a
resounding victory. There may be some buried urge for a strategic
setback in Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean's
"50-state" theory, whereby the party invests its resources to build up
long-term organizational strength in places it can't win in 2006. Dean
has been battling over this strategy with Rep. Rahm Emmanuel and Sen. Charles Schumer,
who are leading Democratic efforts to reclaim the House and Senate, and
who want the DNC to spend its money on get-out-the-vote efforts, the
way the more rational Republican National Committee does. But in
fairness to Dean, defeat is merely the likely outcome of his plan, not
its actual object.

Still, there are reasons why the Democrats
might be better off denying Republicans the defeat they crave in
November. For the Democrats to win the House this year would offer the
unappealing prospect of responsibility without power. With a slim
majority in the next Congress, Democrats wouldn't be able to accomplish
anything significant. The party would still lack the votes to pass
health-care reform or to repeal the Bush tax cuts. But with control of
even one chamber by one vote, the failure to act on such issues would
now be their fault as well. Iraq and the fiscal mess would no longer be
just Bush's problems. The Democratic Party will have a much clearer
story line heading into the 2008 election if it is simply the party out
of power and can call for a complete change.

But if defeat
would serve Democrats' longer-range success in this way, why aren't
party leaders at least ambivalent about what happens in November? The
answer is partly that the interests of individual Democratic leaders
diverge from that of the party as a whole. Rahm Emmanuel's political
future now depends on whether he can deliver the House. Nancy Pelosi
wants to be the first woman in the speaker's chair. Ranking Democrats
on the committees hanker for the laurels and perquisites of chairmen.
The rank and file want to throw off their chains. For all of them, the
issues are primarily career and quality of life, not the party's
presidential prospects. What's more, there is no real way, practically
or psychologically, that any genuine politician can ever aim for
anything other than victory. To attempt to throw the game would be a
betrayal of one's colleagues, one's supporters, and one's words. It
could also horribly misfire by producing a major defeat rather than a
minor one.

And there is one final argument that scotches any
theory that Democrats should be glad to fall short in November: The
party has now gone 10 years without a big win. It desperately needs a
victory to prove to the country that it's not a perpetual loser and to
convince itself of the same thing. Democrats need traction and momentum
much more than they need a simple argument to make heading into the
2008 election. Boring though it may be to say, the real winner in the
November election will be the winner.


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