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Democrats riding high for now, but beware a midterm crash

My columnist and television pundit gigs have me thinking a great deal about the relative positions of the two parties heading into the midterm election cycle.

For starters, the Democrats are ahead. Last November's elections gave the president a surprisingly strong victory and provided him with a comfortable margin in the U.S. Senate. These results have the usual suspects (Hollywood, academia, mainstream media) all aflutter with thoughts of an emergent progressive era in America.

The picture is decidedly less rosy on the other side of the aisle. Political thumpings bring out the worst of Monday morning quarterbacks; recent recriminations have been over the top (see Karl Rove vs. tea party, Chris Christie vs. CPAC) for much of the last three months.

Most importantly, Republicans failed to pick up ground at a most opportune moment: Unemployment hovering around 8 percent, a wildly unpopular health care law, anemic economic growth, and high disapproval ratings are natural ingredients for "throwing the bums out." But in this case, "the bums" (with the exception of the House) were Republicans.

So, with 21 months to go prior to the midterms, a few forewarnings for the two combatants:

Democrats: Second term midterm elections have historically been quite challenging for an incumbent president; double-digit congressional seat losses are the rule. A gradually recovering economy should help, but few economists see robust growth ahead. Heavy new tax burdens for upper-income earners and Obamacare's tax and regulatory costs are cause for further concern. And a crush of new regulations springing forth from Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley, and the aforementioned Obamacare are not exactly sustenance for America's job creators. (Note to college undergraduates: Major in accounting; you will find employment.)

There is another Democratic Party sideshow that bears watching: the long-simmering intramural fight between Big Labor and environmental activists may boil to the top over the Keystone XL pipeline and development of America's rich deposits of natural gas (the so-called "fracking" issue).

The fight is similar to the long-debated issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It's new American jobs and energy independence vs. environmental protection. Each side uses science to back up its respective claims, but it'll be left to the president to make the ultimate decision. One thing's for sure — the loser will be in a bad mood.

Republicans: Speaking of bad moods, I get into one whenever I'm forced into a conversation about the GOP's continual failure to communicate its message. It's a familiar refrain dating to my early days in Congress.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that communication skills matter — more today than ever, given the era of real-time communications. But GOP activists, please take note: It's always more difficult for Scrooge when competing against Santa Claus. And cute and fuzzy are typically not associated with those old reliable GOP stand-bys of debt clocks, welfare reform and tax cuts.

More to the point: People (the voters) are usually going to be happier with those promising endless (government-furnished) goodies as opposed to the purveyors of "No, we can't afford it." For context, look no further than the recent desperate drama wherein the president told the American public Republicans would rather preserve special interest tax breaks for the well off and the well connected rather than protect our military or middle-class families. And this coming on the heels of a $600 billion tax increase passed just a few weeks ago. That, my fellow citizens, is chutzpah — and classic class warfare as brought to you by one of the most prolific practitioners of the art.

Demographic changes are another cause for concern. An electorate with increasing numbers of baseline Democratic African-American and Hispanic voters spells big problems for Republicans. These trend lines must change before any talk of a sustained GOP majority takes hold.

Finally, a reminder to Republican strategists/fiscal hawks who want to crucify congressional Republicans and House Speaker John Boehner for continually losing budget showdowns: Try playing poker with Barack Obama with a consistently weak hand. Only when the speaker was finally dealt a few decent cards (the sequester deadline) did the president's failure to offer serious spending constraint come into more public focus. Also helpful is the increasingly accepted notion that the president is using sequestration to punish, rather than reorder agency spending priorities. A steep (but probably temporary) decline in the president's approval rating has followed.

So there you have it. Serious challenges for both parties loom on the horizon. For now, the progressives are in the driver's seat. But buyer beware: Slow growth, higher taxes and a less than forthcoming explanation for major budget cuts is not a formula for long-term political success.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is

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