Part One: Vote to raise the national debt ceiling
Elections (past, present, and future) have consequences. Back in February, we noted that the upset victory of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts sent a psychological shock wave to some Democrats who were beginning to get “cold feet” politically after tough votes on legislation like the stimulus, “cap and trade”, and an early version of healthcare reform which was sent to the Senate. In the wake of that electoral shock wave, a seemingly routine vote to raise the national debt limit passed 217-212 in the face of unanimous GOP opposition. What was instructive about the vote was that “Majority Politics 101” was in naked display at that time in the following ways:
(1) At that time, 9 Democrats in potentially competitive seats had announced their intentions to retire, and the vote to raise the debt ceiling within that group was 7-2. Keep in mind that the psychology of that group is basically that of a “lame duck”: once you’ve decided to retire, you’re no longer accountable to your constituents. Instead, what becomes more important is a desire to ingratiate yourself with the Democratic leadership so you can leave on good terms and/or get favorable employment outside the political world;
(2) 90 Democrats who at that time thought they were safe (given their solid 2008 re-election percentages) voted 80-10 in favor of raising the debt ceiling. We believed that two things were at play with this group: (a) those who voted “No” were likely those who were not feeling so safe anymore and wanted to protect themselves by showing their independence from the Democratic leadership, (b) because of substantial Democratic majorities, Speaker Nancy Pelosi currently has the luxury of deciding on a vote by vote basis which Democrats have to “walk the plank” for their party and which Democrats are free to vote the way their district wants them to;
(3) 65 (at that time) theoretically vulnerable Democrats voted to raise the national debt ceiling by a 41-23 margin. We also believe the concept of ”spare Democratic votes” applies to this group as well.
Part Two: Analysis of the vote to pass the 2011 budget
Five months later, the Democratic majority indirectly passed the 2011 budget by attaching it to a procedural vote on an emergency war supplemental bill and thus “deemed” the budget as passed by a 215-210 vote. The vote was along party lines, as the Democrats voted 215-38 for the bill, and the Republicans unanimously opposed the bill 0-172. Eight House members (2 Democrats and 6 Republicans) did not vote, and there are currently two House vacancies: the seats of Eric Massa (D-New York) and Mark Souder (R-Indiana). Again, “Majority Politics 101” was in full display again to those who were watching:
(1) Of the 16 Democrats in potentially competitive districts who are retiring/were defeated in their primaries, the vote to pass the budget was 14-1 (one did not vote). As before, “lame duck” psychology was the primary motivation for a “Yes” vote;
(2) The 65 Democrats we believe are vulnerable voted 42-23 for the budget – note the similarity of this breakdown to the 41-23 split on raising the national debt. Again, we think the Democratic majority is carefully picking and choosing which vulnerable Democrats have to “take one for the team”;
(3) Since February, we have added six Democrats incumbents to the “watch list” of being potentially vulnerable due to weak poll numbers – within this group, the vote was split: 3-2 voted for the budget (one did not vote);
(4) Previously, we believed that 79 of the 166 incumbent Democrats in potentially competitive districts were safe because (a) they voted “No” on healthcare reform, (b) they represented a district with a strong “Democratic base”, or (c) they were re-elected with over 65% of the vote in 2008. This group supported the budget by a 70-9 margin. The remaining 86 Democrats represent strongly Democratic districts and voted 86-3 for the measure, which is not surprising, although it was interesting that three Democrats representing inner city districts voted “No.”
Part Three: “Talking Points” regarding the vote to pass the 2011 budget
(1) The growing class of “lame duck” Democrats and Republicans (currently, there are 44 in the House and 13 in the Senate) actually benefits the Democratic leadership. In the short term, unpopular legislation can still be passed between the November elections and the January 2011 swearing in of the new Congress, because in that time frame, there are no political consequences for the “lame ducks”, plus there may be a sense of urgency from the Democratic leadership to pass the rest of their agenda before a more conservative Congress takes over. There is a precedent for this behavior: after the Reagan landslide in 1980, a lame duck Congress passed legislation they could not have gotten passed or signed into law once Reagan and the new Congress took over in January 1981;
(2) We noted with some interest that of the 79 Democrats we previously thought were safe for reasons listed above, 9 of them voted “No” on the budget. We believe this happened because they are seeing internal warning signs indicating that they will have a tough re-election fight on their hands, and are accordingly “voting their district” in an attempt to insulate themselves from voter wrath. We therefore are adding these 9 Democrats to the “watch list”;
(3) Charlie Melancon (D-Louisiana) surprisingly voted “Yes” on the budget (after voting “No” on “cap and trade”, healthcare reform, and increasing the national debt limit). We interpret this vote in one of two ways: (a) He believes that if he wants to gain traction in the polls against Senator David Vitter, he needs additional Democratic funding, and his vote is a subtle way of telling the Democratic majority that he is really on their side; (b) In light of poll numbers that have barely budged since he entered the race, he is quietly telling the political world that he is a “lame duck” and wants to leave on a positive note in the eyes of the Democratic leadership.
We have attached a list of the 166 Democrats we are following, how they voted, and how we rate their chances at re-election.
John is a political consultant and blogger with JMC Enterprises with expertise in poll sample development and analysis, development of targeted voter files for phone canvassing or mail outs, campaign strategy and demographic consulting, among other things. See his site at WinWithJMC.com for more information.