Why the White House wants Dems to keep the House – for the most part

Democratic leaders have been furious over White House spokesman Robert Gibbs’s comment about the possibility that the GOP will take control of the House in the fall.

Charles Dharapak/AP
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs shown briefing reporters in Washington.

Is the White House actually willing to see the Democrats lose control of the House, on the theory that it could help President Obama win reelection in 2012?

Some Democrats are suspicious that’s the case – though it’s difficult to find one willing to say so on the record.

The issue has come to the fore following White House spokesman Robert Gibbs’s comment Sunday on “Meet the Press” that has ignited fury among Democratic leaders. “I think there's no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control,” Mr. Gibbs said. “There's no doubt about that."

Gibbs has since softened the comment, but that did not stop House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from unloading on him at a closed-door meeting of the House Democratic Caucus Tuesday night. Gibbs was not there, but she reportedly went after another White House aide in the room, suggesting Gibbs didn’t know what he was talking about.

At Wednesday’s White House press briefing, Gibbs said that he has a “cordial” relationship with Speaker Pelosi. He also said, "I think we will retain the House and the Senate.”

Political analysts say that Gibbs on Sunday was just stating the obvious. The question is, was it smart to do that – given that the comment helps energize Republicans at a crucial time for organizing and fundraising, less than four months before the Nov. 2 midterm elections. One countertheory is that Gibbs was issuing a warning to the less-than-enthusiastic Democratic base – as in, hey, wake up; we are in danger of losing the House, despite the party’s large majority.

To take over the House, the Republicans need a net gain of 39 seats. On the Cook Political Report scorecard, 60 Democratic-held seats either “lean Democratic” or are a “tossup.” An additional four Democratic seats “lean Republican.” Only seven Republican-held seats are seen as vulnerable.

(Political analysts see a Republican takeover of the Senate as a steeper climb.)

On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Obama has an opportunity to clear the air with Democratic House leaders, who are coming to the Oval Office to talk about legislative priorities before the August recess.

But is there, in fact, an argument to be made that it benefits Obama to lose the House in November? After all, if Republicans controlled at least one chamber, maybe the public would hold them at least partially responsible for the state of the country. When President Clinton lost control of Congress in his first midterms, in 1994, he was able to regroup and “triangulate” his way to reelection, by finding common cause with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.

Whether Obama has the skill to do that is questionable. And, analysts say, political polarization could be a big problem.

“There’s a raging debate ... as to whether divided government would be a disaster or hold out some opportunities,” says William Galston, a policy aide in the Clinton White House. “A lot depends on your assessment of the extent to which political polarization has worsened since the mid-’90s. My view is it’s gotten substantially worse, and it was already bad then.”

Mr. Galston, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says he’s pessimistic that 2012 would be a rerun of 1996, in the event of a GOP takeover of the House. “The Republican Party now is even more monolithically conservative and even more driven by its base than 15 years ago,” he says.

If the Democrats do lose the House – and Galston places the odds at better than 50-50 – then Obama can pull a President Truman and call it a “do-nothing Congress” that is stifling change.

Democratic strategists say, all things being equal, they’d rather keep the House.

“Thank you very much, I’d rather accomplish things in those two years, and hopefully the next four years, and not get stalled,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic communications consultant.

There’s another big reason for Obama not to want the Democrats to lose the House: Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California. If Republicans take the House, Representative Issa would become chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee – and gain the subpoena power that goes with the job. Issa and his staff have a reputation for being relentless over suspected wrongdoing.


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