Democrats, facing a challenging fight to retake the House of Representatives in 2014, see a promising new line of attack rising out of the fiscal cliff follies: casting the Republican congressional majority as a terminally dysfunctional body that cannot perform the basic functions of government, let alone lead the country through difficult times.
It's a meaningful shift from the Democrats' message in 2012, when President Barack Obama's party gained a modest eight seats in the House attacking Republicans as ultraconservative allies of the super-rich.
After the past two weeks of tumultuous negotiations over the fiscal cliff, which ended late on New Year's Day with a majority of House Democrats and minority of Republicans voting to raise taxes on upper-income Americans, Democratic strategists now say that competence, as much as ideology, will be at the core of their midterm message.
In other words: if Democrats wanted last cycle to be about whether Mitt Romney and other Republicans were too right wing and elitist to govern, they hope to make next cycle about whether the GOP House can operate on any ideological terms at all.
New York Rep. Steve Israel, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the political reality is that "people do tend to blame Republicans for this chaos" and the minority party has two years to explain to voters how the fallout from that hurts their lives.
"If we continue to be the problem solvers and Republicans continue to be the problem, we will have a very strong path to getting the majority," Israel said. "Republicans are drawing those contrasts with every cliff they try to throw us off."
The House's image took another hit Wednesday when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a potential Republican presidential candidate, lashed out at congressional Republicans for failing to schedule a vote on aid for Americans affected by Hurricane Sandy.
"Americans are tired of the palace intrigue and political partisanship of this Congress, which places one-upsmanship ahead of the lives of the citizens who sent these people to Washington, D.C., in the first place," Christie said. "New York deserves better than the selfishness we saw on display last night. New Jersey deserves better than the duplicity we saw on display last night. America deserves better than just another example of a government that has forgotten who they are there to serve and why."
The path to a Democratic majority remains narrow, party leaders acknowledge, thanks to the post-2010 redistricting that shored up the GOP's hold on once-competitive districts across the nation. If Republicans were to lose control of the chamber in 2014, it would likely be thanks to grievous missteps on the part of their own leaders and candidates, in addition to any successful Democratic campaign.
Few operatives in either party believe Republicans have wounded themselves to that degree so far: The 113th Congress is only being sworn in Thursday and the next election is nearly two years away.
Yet with months of sparring ahead over the debt ceiling, the deep and unpopular spending cuts in sequestration and the grim overall fiscal state of the nation, there's ample peril ahead for GOP lawmakers who threw the House into chaos throughout the month of December.
In particular, the inability of House Republicans to rally behind Speaker John Boehner's proposed Plan B fiscal cliff deal -- a tax on millionaires coupled with spending cuts, which never even made it to the House floor -- raised questions for both parties about whether the House is even a functional body.
And even before the cliff fiasco, Republicans were shackled with a dreadful national image: only 30 percent of respondents in a December NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had a positive impression of the party, versus 45 percent who had a negative impression. (For Democrats, those numbers were 44 percent positive, 35 percent negative.) Obama and other Democrats argued in 2012 that the intransigent Congress was in part to blame for the sluggish economy; voters seemed open to the argument.
Alixandria Lapp, who heads the Democratic group House Majority PAC, said that when "House Republicans are tagged as the people unwilling to compromise on behalf of the American people, that's helpful for Democrats."
"They're really isolating themselves," Lapp said. "If this is a pattern that continues, which is headline after headline saying 'House Republican leaders fail on X,' and 'House Republicans refuse to compromise on Y,' then I think that becomes a real big problem for them."
Republicans steering House campaign strategy dismissed the outbreak of Democratic confidence as the latest in a series of boom-and-bust mood swings on the part of the congressional minority. Far from fearing the consequences of legislative wrangling, Republicans contend that the 2014 cycle will most likely be defined by questions about spending, on which the GOP has long held an advantage.
So if Republicans struggled to win a confrontation over taxes with Obama this week, the longer-range issue set for 2014 may be less daunting.
"House Democrats are as addicted to phony optimism as they are to spending. They have been proclaiming that they are on the cusp of retaking the House from the moment they lost it," said Republican strategist Brad Todd, who advises the National Republican Congressional Committee. "If Democrats want to make the 2014 election a referendum on whether we should have a fiscal chaperone for the president and whether he should borrow and spend too much money, we're happy to have that referendum."
With a limited battlefield of competitive races and lower turnout than the 2012 presidential year, Todd argued Republicans "have an excellent opportunity to grow our majority in the midterms."
GOP strategists privately acknowledge it would be a problem if the party somehow allowed itself to become synonymous with Washington dysfunction. But that would require mismanaging future fiscal confrontations -- starting with the upcoming debt ceiling fight -- at least as dramatically as they flubbed the cliff deal.
Republican pollster Brock McCleary, a former top NRCC official, said that in the short term, most lawmakers "cast a vote they can tout back home" on the fiscal cliff.
"In safe seats, conservatives protected their right flank. In competitive districts, polling shows that striking a compromise and making the rich pay a little more plays quite well," McCleary said. "House Republicans were just reelected with the second-largest majority since World War II. They did so in spite of a Democratic president being reelected and a Medicare issue that Democrats predicted would be their shortcut back to the majority."
On its own, the fiscal cliff vote isn't a "TARP-level vote," said one Republican official, referring to the high-stakes fight over the 2008 bank bailouts.
"Is this Obamacare? The stimulus? No," the Republican said. "I think more members would be concerned about the primaries right now as opposed to how this will affect the general election."
That fact, Democrats say, is one of the prime reasons Republicans may continue to create self-inflicted wounds: With so many members in solid-red districts, there's little electoral pressure for the party to compromise rather than to escalate dramatically on spending issues they consider their political home turf.
"Many of their seats are so Republican that maybe they're not so concerned about the general elections. But I think we've learned in wave elections, it doesn't really matter how conservative or liberal your seat is. For Democrats, that is maybe what they need -- not a wave like 2008 or 2010, but something that maintains the momentum Democrats have generated since the election," said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell, a former senior Hill aide.
"There are opportunities that exist today that didn't even on Election Day, when we had a pretty good day," Thornell said. "[Republicans] are going to have to demonstrate over the next four or five months that they are fit to lead again."
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