110th Congress’ Fate Tied to Presidential Campaign Calendar

Posted March 20, 2007 at 4:34pm

Next year brings the craziest and most consequential presidential election in our lifetimes. Wherever I go, the first question on peoples’ minds is, “Who will the nominees be?” followed by, “Who will be the next president?” My honest answer is, “Who knows?” [IMGCAP(1)]

The fact is that this process, still very much in the making, is impossible to scope out. We can lay odds on the candidates’ chances of winning nominations, we can pontificate about the impact of an extreme front-loading of the system, we can weave plausible scenarios about why one person can win and another cannot, but none of the pontifications or predictions is worth much of anything.

Still, there are a few things we can say with confidence. One is that this campaign will be more driven by dollars, with the candidates and the press more obsessed with the money chase than ever before. The second is that the policy process this year and next, and the fate of action plans on every key issue from the war to education, health care to energy, immigration to the environment, will be profoundly shaped — and constrained — by the presidential campaign. The third is that Congress, especially the Senate, will find its own schedule, committee dynamics and ability to meet and act driven by the campaign. The fourth is that the issues facing the country, in our role in the world and in our domestic challenges ahead, are truly daunting and of critical importance.

Here are the basics. For both parties, unless things change (as they could tomorrow), the formal nomination games will kick off Jan. 14 with the Iowa caucuses. For the Democrats, the second battle will take place five days later with caucuses in Nevada. Three days after that, on Jan. 22, both parties then turn to the New Hampshire primary (with Republicans adding Wyoming caucuses). One week after that, Democrats have the South Carolina primary (the state’s GOP primary is slated to occur four days later). Then comes Super-Mega-Gigantico Tuesday on Feb. 5 — with a likely 23 states, including the giant ones of California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas. By this point, 60 percent or more of the delegates will have been selected over the course of 23 days.

Think of a roller coaster ride. It begins with an interminable, agonizing climb up a steep hill that seems to take forever. There is a pause for a nanosecond — and then you careen down the hill at breakneck speed, leaving your innards behind. Of course, we are now in the early stages of the interminable, agonizing climb.

With this kind of timetable, candidates have to stockpile huge sums of cash to have on hand when January rolls around. One cannot do a campaign on the fly in 2008; there is no time between contests to regroup, catch one’s breath or alter campaign tactics. There is no time to haul in big money once January rolls around; you need money in advance to buy television ads (all cash on the barrelhead) and organize campaigns in a huge number of states.

To be a top-tier candidate, one needs somewhere in the range of $50 million on hand at the end of this year. For most top-tier candidates, given the costs of fundraising and running full-fledged national campaigns, that means raising close to $100 million this year. Put it in these terms: The candidates need to find 1,000 people every single week willing to give the maximum $2,300, or many thousands every week willing to give somewhat less. A few candidates can reach these goals; most will fall short, and some will fall waaaaay short. But each will have to knock himself or herself out to bring in the bucks, leaving little time for anything else.

That doesn’t mean the candidates with the most money will win. An underfunded candidate could still hit it big in Iowa, follow with a win in Nevada and then ride a wave of free publicity to victory in New Hampshire — leaving the candidates who have banked tons of money reeling after 0-for-3 starts and unable to take advantage of their financial edge. But it would be difficult for the underfunded candidate to sustain the pace. One still needs organizations and delegate slates in all the states. Moreover, the delegates will basically be selected on a proportional basis — no winner-take-all prizes, meaning that a candidate with organization and strong and committed support can win lots of delegates and stay alive, allowing the organizational and monetary advantages to bite later on.

We could have both party contests essentially over by Feb. 6. We could have two-way, three-way or four-way contests going on until the conventions. Or we could have something in between. Any of these represents a plausible scenario. But until the roller coaster starts downhill, the scramble for cash and the centrifugal pull on the candidates by the activist left and right wings will be the main facts of life.

Inside Congress, the challenge is to get something done when a significant slice of the Senate — including Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and maybe others — is running in this environment. Three of the 11 Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee and three of the 11 Democrats on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee are running for president. Will Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) be able to get a quorum when he needs it on HELP? Will Biden be able to get one on Foreign Relations? (And will it include him?) How will the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee operate while Dodd campaigns for president?

Will majorities in the middle be possible if a half-dozen key players in Congress are pulled away from the middle and are issuing rhetorical broadsides that will excite the blogosphere’s left and right but make it more difficult for their colleagues to compromise? How much time do we have before presidential politics crowd out major consideration of key public policy issues inside Congress? All are real and important questions, and the fate of the 110th Congress depends in large measures on the answers.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.