Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

What is it that we are to turn on? To what are we tuning in? Midterms! On November 3rd, 2010, Barack H. Obama will still reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but offices at the other end of that particular street might begin to move. Recently White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs let forth the earth shattering notion that Democrats might not control both chambers of Congress after the election. Not particularly surprising to anyone who has been paying attention…but rather poorly received by House Democrats. Indeed Speaker Pelosi (yikes!) lambasted Gibbs in a meeting with her Democratic colleagues.

No matter your current level of interest, I am here to tell you that the midterm elections should be of interest to you. What follows (hopefully) will be a persuasive argument as to why you should turn on (TV, internets, radio, twitters), how you should tune into House races, and why this all matters.

What about the Senate? For a variety of reasons (which I am happy, even eager, to discuss elsewhere) the Senate Majority Leader has no where near the control over his fellow members, legislative calendar, or policy, as the Speaker of the House does. Individual Senators and Committees, by practice and procedure, have much greater power in the upper chamber than in the lower. As a result, I would submit it is the Speaker of the House that is the second most powerful office in the land.

And it’s up for grabs. As Gibbs noted (despite his rather unsurprising ‘walking back’) the House is up for grabs. “Speaker Boehner” is a phrase which sends chills up the spines of Democrats everywhere, much as the mere utterance of the words “Speaker Pelosi” cause the average Republican to fret and avoid eating for some time.

So what should you pay attention to? There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought. The first, and easier to track, is national indicators. The state of the economy, the unemployment rate, the ‘national mood,’ and other metrics are all fair rough metrics of what is likely to happen. The alternative is to predict on a race by race basis how elections are likely to turn out and tally those predictions. (For those of you reading this to waste time and are really looking for an excuse not to get stuff done, you can read this piece or this one on forecasting).

So where to tune? The Cook Political Report is an invaluable source as a guide to which races are competitive and how they compare. His House Race charts can be found here. For those of you looking for a bit more content, and World Cup references, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza is a must read. For those of your truly addicted, there are many more resources but a new one that I am quite fond of is a twitter feed @FECTweets run by Reid Wilson at National Journal’s Hotline. The feed just broadcasts the quarterly fundraising results (2Q were due July 15) so less useful now, but good to have in the future.

There’s also the option to drop out. I’m not necessarily advocating you leave CMC for a semester to work on a campaign, though you could do worse things. You can phone bank from anywhere with Skype or a cell phone, and you can always write a check. If you do plan to go the cash route, I will not use this space to tell you who to send money to, but I will say this: go small or go home. Money you send to a House race in Idaho (Democrat/Republican) will go a lot further than dollars you spend to Illinois (Democrat/Republican).

Why does it matter that Nancy and Robert couldn't play nice? It matters a great deal because the Speaker of the House is the second most powerful person in the nation and the White House Press Secretary is the public voice of the President.

Now you might retort ‘No, Jesse. I learned in Govt. 20 that it goes President, Vice President, Speaker of the House….’ Well, simply put, that’s just not true. The Vice Presidency of the United States of America, august title and all, is just not that important. Vice President Garner once said the Vice Presidency was “not worth a bucket of warm piss,” hardly the description of an all powerful office.

There are two principle reasons why this is true: a) the Vice President has no natural area of responsibility, except for those given to him by the President, and b) the Vice President has no vote (except in rare Senate ties) and has no natural power base or constituency to call upon.

Given our age, I am sure the comments section would fill with comments about Dick Cheney, was he not powerful? First it is worth noting that Cheney is the exception far more than the rule. Second, and more substantively, Cheney’s power within the Bush administration derived from his close, almost Chief of Staff-like relationship with the President. All politicians have close aids and allies who have their ear, and whose judgment the principal trusts. Vice President Cheney filled that role for President Bush, but unlike most advisors, his name was also on the ballot.

What is the point of this tangent? If we accept that the Vice President is not all that important, there is a vacancy in the number two slot…meet the Speaker of the House. The Speaker consolidates the powers of the House of Representatives in large measure in the Speaker’s office, has direct (if not de facto) control over what bills come to the floor, and just as importantly which bills do not. The Speaker can exercise an effective veto over legislation, and has a greater power, more than any other single member of Congress, to effect policy and political changes. This power is amplified when the Speaker is of a different party than the President as the Speaker also becomes in effect the voice of the ‘out’ party (see Gingrich, Newt).

Bottom line: November’s election matters a great deal. Control of a very powerful position is up for grabs, and this will have significant implications for the rest of President Obama’s term, for the course of the nation, and for national politics for the next few years. If that is something that interests you, there are a number of ways to get information. If you want to do more than read passively, you can get involved in a meaningful way.

Decisions are made by those who show up, will you?

OBVIOUS BIAS ALERT: The author of this post worked in the Fall of 20o9 and this summer for House Republican Leader John Boehner. Notwithstanding this fact, this article contains useful advice ensconced in a whimsical and yet powerful writing style.