By Salena Zito
You have to hand it to the White House: It is at least consistent in sending the absolutely wrong message to voters pondering whether to keep Democrats in control of Congress in the coming midterm election.
Even the body language is all wrong.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs mocked Sarah Palin's crib notes on the palm of her hand. The next day, President Obama told Business Week that he didn't begrudge gazillion-dollar bonuses for executives of banks that U.S. taxpayers rescued.
That'll all play real well in battleground congressional districts, where incumbents and hopefuls are trying to define a message and a plan to win back independent voters and conservative Democrats who have surged away from them in recent polls.
Poll-aggregator Real-Clear Politics' average on the generic ballot shows Republicans ahead of Democrats, 46 percent to 42 percent. That is one big red flag for the party in power as the midterms approach.
Independent voters may not vote for Sarah Palin, but the White House does itself a disservice by making fun of her; Main Street voters have a lot more respect for someone who uses crib notes (something they might do) over someone who uses a teleprompter in a sixth-grade class room (something they would never do, but that Obama did recently).
Races always swing in one of two very different ways: left versus right (ideological) or inside versus outside (disconnected).
This year's midterms are all about disconnection, which is why the consistently inconsistent message from the White House lends no support to Democrats.
You need look no further than all of Pennsylvania's U.S. House races - especially with the death of Rep. Jack Murtha in a sprawling, Republican-trending district.
"As Chris Cillizza noted on last Monday 'Murtha's death makes Pennsylvania perhaps the most competitive state in the country when it comes to the battle for the House,'" says Villanova University political science professor Lara Brown.
Republican campaign committees plan on targeting Pennsylvania's 4th, 7th, 8th, 10th, 11th and 12th districts, while Democrats see opportunity in the 6th and 15th districts.
Having more than 25 percent of the congressional districts (the 7th, 12th, 11th, 6th and 15th) highly competitive (rated "toss-ups" or "leaning" by CQPolitics) and 20 percent (the 3rd, 4th, 8th and 10th) seriously contested (rated "likely" by CQPolitics) means Pennsylvania is likely to see more action than any other state.
When you look at the partisan split of these nine seats, seven are held by Democrats and only two by Republicans - meaning that the GOP will view this as the key state for picking up seats, which could help them get to the 40 needed to take the majority in November.
Brown explains that the special election for Murtha's seat is likely to be a partisan showdown of fairly epic proportions, "not only because it is the only congressional district in the country that went for Kerry in 2004 and McCain in 2008" - opposite the national trend - "but because the Republicans will be looking to show that the momentum they had in the Massachusetts U.S Senate race is continuing to build and that November will bring them majority status."
On the flip side, Democrats will be looking to prove they learned a lesson in Massachusetts, now know how to win special elections (as in New York's 23rd District), and can retain their House majority in November.
This is why the messaging from the White House is critically important.
The state also faces a U.S. Senate race between likely GOP candidate Pat Toomey and either the incumbent Democrat, Arlen Specter, or his challenger, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak. (Rasmussen Reports polling puts Specter ahead by 15 points; but Sestak is still not known and, since he has more than $5 million in cash-on-hand, the question is what will happen when he starts spending his money?)
Brown says another recent Rasmussen poll revealed how much the Keystone State has altered its views of President Obama and Washington over the past 15 months: Obama won the state with 55% of the vote in November 2008; today, just 44% of Pennsylvania voters approve of the job he's doing as president.
"In short, this was a battleground state leaning blue," she says, "and, at least for the moment, it appears to be a battleground state leaning red."
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org