By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democratic National Committee chairwoman, was in an elevator with her staff Tuesday morning, leaving the National Press Club, where she had just held a televised news conference.
“Life is good!” she said brightly. “I didn’t disembowel myself.”
Talk about a low bar.
A year earlier, to the day, the Republican National Committee had held an event at the same location to receive the “autopsy” report detailing the party’s failures in 2012 and its plan for rebirth. Wasserman Schultz held her event for the purpose of “doing an autopsy on their autopsy” but, as her private expression of relief indicates, Democrats are the ones talking about the cold morgue table at the moment.
As Republican medical examiners reflect on improvements since the 2012 debacle and Democratic coroners ponder the possible loss of the Senate in November, it feels like an episode of “CSI: Washington.” An hour before Wasserman Schultz’s appearance, her GOP counterpart, Reince Priebus, met with reporters at the St. Regis Hotel and used the autopsy anniversary to celebrate his party’s return from the dead.
“We’re in for a tsunami-type election in 2014,” he boasted at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “The Democrats are in the dumps,” he added. “It looks like it’s going to be a disaster for Democrats.”
Informed by Yahoo News’ Chris Moody of Priebus’ remarks, Wasserman Schultz said that the Republicans’ “prediction accuracy isn’t exactly on the mark of late.” Historically low public opinion of the GOP, she said, means “their attempt at rebranding has failed.”
Both Priebus and Wasserman Schultz are correct. They’re just talking about different time frames.
Signs point to a dismal midterm election for Democrats, as voters blame President Obama’s party for their frustrations with the nation’s direction. But the Republicans’ short-term advantage masks their failure to improve their standing among the key demographic groups — particularly Latinos, women and young voters — they will need if they are to win the presidency in 2016 or beyond.
Wasserman Schultz, in unveiling a nine-page document titled “Same Old Party,” declared that the GOP is nothing but “another year older. What changes we have seen from the Republican Party are superficial and tactical but do little to address their core problem.” Republican outreach to women and minorities “gives new meaning to the term ‘awkward,’” she added in a stage whisper. She listed Mike Huckabee’s comments about women’s libido, Paul Ryan’s quote about the deficient culture of the inner city and Steve King’s remarks about immigrants with cantaloupe-shaped calves.
But reporters turned Wasserman Schultz’s focus to her own party’s troubles. Will Democrats lose the Senate? “I am confident we’re going to hold the Senate,” she said, as she must. Why did Democrats lose a special election in Florida last week? “Republicans won in a Republican district.”
When Eric Pianin of the Fiscal Times asked about Obama’s unpopularity hurting Democrats, Wasserman Schultz turned to a previous questioner, who had inquired about Chris Christie: “Just to go back to your question for a second … “
At Priebus’ breakfast, the dynamic was the reverse: He spoke of Republicans’ cyclical advantages and tiptoed around the party’s long-term disadvantages. He spoke of Obamacare as “a poisonous issue for Democrats” and of Republicans “riding high” with superior fundraising. “Regardless of what might be happening or not happening in Congress, the RNC is enjoying a lot of success,” he said.
But what’s happening or not happening in Congress — particularly the failure to pass immigration legislation — has put Republicans at odds with the changing electorate and left the GOP with a difficult route to the presidency.
When Slate’s John Dickerson pressed him on immigration reform and other policy recommendations in the GOP autopsy, Priebus replied that “you’re asking the wrong person.” The chairman said that 90 percent of his job is improving the party’s field operations, data capabilities and revamping the presidential primaries.
Priebus has done that, but the autopsy also said the party needed to be more “inclusive and welcoming” on social issues, while advancing immigration reform. Priebus dismissed questions about the GOP agenda by saying that Republicans are “overly obsessed” with their demographic problems and that there is “laziness on the part of people who simply want to claim the Republican Party has a woman problem.”
Still, the chairman accepted the obvious truth that “our party has had a pretty good record in midterm elections and we’ve had a poor record in presidential elections.”
You don’t have to be a licensed coroner to recognize that this condition is ultimately terminal.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.