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Different election, same playbook: Why 2014 will look a lot like 2012

In 2012, the electoral battle lines were clear: Democrats painted the race as a struggle between a dynamic incumbent and a lesser GOP foe, while Republicans made it a referendum on the president and his health care law. It’s a playbook that both parties are reaching into for the 2014 midterm election, with Republicans and Democrats both looking to expand their influence on Capitol Hill.

In recent days, President Barack Obama has made a point of highlighting his own proposals as a means of arguing that Republicans don’t just have a bad plan – they have no plans.

While delivering remarks on poverty, inequality and the decreasing economic mobility of the middle class, President Obama declares that 'we are a better country than this' and these injustices should compel citizens to action.  

“You owe it to the American people to tell us what you are for, not just what you’re against,” the president said earlier this month in an economic speech that foreshadowed one of the key narratives of the 2014 campaign. “That way we can have a vigorous and meaningful debate.”

Republicans, in turn, have been resurgent in recent weeks after stumbling through a government shutdown for which many Americans had blamed them. The GOP’s been resuscitated by the troubled launch of insurance markets under the Affordable Care Act, an animating issue for the party during their 2010 charge to power in Congress.

But it’s unclear whether Republicans can find success next fall simply by highlighting their opposition to Obama and his signature health reform law. If they were to opt for such a strategy, they would essentially follow in the footsteps of GOP nominee Mitt Romney, whose attempt to transform last year’s presidential election into a referendum on Obama ended up being a losing strategy.

“I think it’s more than enough to make it a referendum on [Obama],” Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin said of the GOP’s 2014 strategy. “The White House is driving the agenda and the agenda’s not popular.”

Republicans appear to be sensitive, though, to perceptions that they have accomplished little during their second term in control of the House. As congressional productivity hit record lows, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, took to the House floor on Tuesday to highlight the 150 or so (mostly partisan) bills approved by the House that have died in the Sente.

“Every single one of these bills has been blocked by Washington Democrats,” Boehner said. “The Senate and the president continue to stand in the way of the people’s priorities.”

Races to watch: Will Obamacare sink Democrats in 2014?

But the speaker also crystallized the dilemma for Republicans earlier this week when he punted on a question about whether the House would produce and vote upon a Republican alternative to Obamacare sometime in 2014. “We’ll see,” he said.

“I think Democrats are going to try to force these kind of ‘choice’ elections,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell, “forcing the conversation into a choice between what the president and what Democrats are offering, and what Republicans want to offer.”

Applying a grand narrative – whether the election is a choice between Democrats and Republicans, or a referendum on Obama – is far more difficult in a series of congressional elections, though, than it is in a presidential election. For starters, the number of competitive House seats has been diminished by redistricting efforts. And House races in particular often assume a more local flavor that might not always mirror national storylines.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California talks about the problem of insurers dropping coverage for tens of thousands of Americans.

It’s somewhat easier, however, to nationalize Senate races. And the Senate is the primary battleground of the 2014 midterm elections, when Republicans will try to net six seats to retake the upper chamber and strengthen their hand on Capitol Hill.

Brian Walsh, a veteran of the campaign committee which helps elect Republicans to the Senate, suggested that GOP Senate candidates cannot simply rest their campaigns on being anti-Obamacare.

“It cannot just be about Obamacare,” Walsh said of his party’s 2014 strategy. “It’s obviously an enormous political problem for Democrats, but it’s also important for Republicans to talk about their own positive ideas and alternatives to replacing that.”

Republicans are eager to point out the variety of plans floating around Capitol Hill that they say would form the basis of their alternative to Obamacare. But there’s no central proposal behind which Republicans can rally; GOP candidates aren’t equipped with talking points to explain an available Republican insurance alternative, because there is none.

In that sense, the GOP could be vulnerable to Obama’s latest arguments. The president has argued that Republicans have no plan on health care beyond repealing his law, and has extended that argument to economic policy and even immigration reform. (A bipartisan Senate immigration bill has languished in the House, where Republicans want to break the law into separate pieces but have not done so yet.)

There’s still time for Republicans to produce and coalesce around alternative proposals in 2014, but the process of legislating will almost certainly become more difficult as individual lawmakers turn their attention toward tending to their own re-election campaigns.

And creating consensus around big new policies isn’t always easy.  Conservatives balked earlier this year at a modest proposal from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to help expand high-risk insurance pools, an embarrassment to one of the No. 2 Republican’s efforts to soften the GOP’s image on health care.)

“They need to show and demonstrate that they can operate effectively in Washington and do something for their voters,” said Thornell, the Democratic strategist. “And right now they don’t really have anything to which they can really point.”

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