When you spot the word “triage” in a political news story, you know someone is in trouble.
Triage is the procedure by which medical personnel screening people injured in combat or disasters separate those who can be saved from those who can't. The first group are given immediate surgery in hopes of recovery. The second are given painkillers to make the end bearable.
So it was a startling to read last weekend in the New York Times that House Democratic leaders “are preparing a brutal triage of their own members in hopes of saving enough seats to keep a slim grip on the majority.”
House Democratic campaign Chairman Chris Van Hollen quickly pooh-poohed the story, as any politically savvy person would. But I bet he's already done his triage and that some of the names mentioned in the Times story are to get painkillers only.
For in the last week, the bad news has been flooding in on congressional Democrats. On the generic-ballot question, the RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls showed that 49 percent said they would vote for the Republican candidate for the House and 41 percent said they would vote for the Democrat.
To put these results in perspective, consider that before last month, Gallup had never shown Republicans leading by more than 6 percent since it began asking the question in 1942. Now they lead by as much as 13 percent in some polls.
And consider also that the generic-ballot question has tended to underpredict actual Republican performance in five of the last six House elections.
Republicans need to gain 39 seats for a House majority. The professional analysts see it happening: Larry Sabato puts the number at 47, Stuart Rothenberg at 37 to 42, Charlie Cook at 40. Cook notes that Democratic incumbents are trailing Republican challengers in polls in 32 districts.
These are cautious prognosticators who evaluate candidates for every seat. No wonder Politico's Mike Allen wrote yesterday that “the sky is falling” for the Democrats.
The signs are that Democratic candidates are getting the same message in their polls. Joe Donnelly in Indiana 2 runs an ad criticizing Barack Obama. Travis Childers in Mississippi 1 boasts of voting against the budget. Steve Driehaus in Ohio 1 runs a spot identifying his opponent as a congressman, even though he's really an ex-congressman, while positioning himself as the challenger.
At least five House Democrats are running ads bragging about their votes against Obamacare. Surveys of ads run by candidates indicate that no Democrat has run an ad bragging about the health care bill since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did in April. More recently he's been concentrating on depicting his opponent Sharron Angle as a wacko.
Is all this just a response to a sputtering economy? Political scientist Alan Abramowitz, on a panel with Sabato and me at the American Political Science Association conference last weekend, said he thought so. I disagreed.
I think what we're seeing is a rejection of the Obama Democrats' big-government policies. The president and his party thought that in times of economic distress most voters would be supportive of or at least amenable to a vast expansion of the size and scope of government.
They jammed the Senate version of their health care bill through the House in March, in the face of the clear opposition signaled by the voters of Massachusetts as well as every public opinion poll. I can't think of a more unpopular major measure passed by Congress since the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
Back then the Democrats also had supermajorities in both houses of Congress and a young, previously little-known president who had defeated an aging war hero by a decisive margin. They realized that the Kansas-Nebraska Act promoting slavery in the territories would raise some hackles, but expressed confidence that voters would accept it when it was properly explained to them.
They didn't. Voters reduced the number of Democratic House members from 159 to 83, nearly eliminating the party in much of the North. Democrats didn't win a House majority for the next 20 years.
Today House Democrats have more money than their opponents and, unlike 1994, they've known for months that they might be in peril. They know that Republicans remain unpopular and hoped their own numbers would improve. But instead they're plunging to historic depths. Time for triage.
Michael Barone,The Examiner's senior political analyst, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.