Sunday, August 23, 2009

Democrats in Denial

Ian Swanson and Mike Soraghan write in The Hill, in what seem to be astonished tones, that the 2010 midterm elections are looking like a "more difficult political environment for Democrats."

I've been saying this for months — I'm not sure when I first wrote about it in this blog, but I know I mentioned it to people after the Democrats made concessions to the Republicans and got next to nothing for their trouble in the debate over the stimulus package in February.

I've been talking about it ever since.

Pooh pooh, my friends protested. Obama just won by a wide margin. Democrats have a 257–178 advantage in the House. When was the last time the Democrats had that many House seats?

Well, actually, Democrats had 258 House seats when Bill Clinton took office in January 1993. In the 1994 midterms, they lost 54 House seats — more importantly, they lost control of the chamber for a dozen years.

Clinton, of course, had to clean up an economic mess made by another Bush. It wasn't as severe as the one Obama inherited from the younger Bush, but it was bad enough. I don't recall anyone seriously criticizing the steps Clinton had to take to right the economic ship — especially since, when he left office, he left behind a budget surplus (which was immediately squandered by the second Bush).

I did hear some squawking by Republicans when the stimulus package was passed — but everyone understood that desperate times called for desperate measures, right?

Democrats have 60 seats in the Senate, my friends say. How long has it been since either party had that many seats?

True, 60 Senate seats is rare and usually short lived. It took the defection of Arlen Specter from the GOP to give the Democrats their so–called "filibuster–proof" majority. But such numbers are very hard to sustain. Prior to the current party division in the Senate, Democrats held 61 seats when Jimmy Carter took office in 1977. His party lost three Senate seats in 1978, then lost control of the Senate for six years when 12 seats flipped to the GOP in 1980.

But what many people forget is that Democrats had been making steadier and more impressive gains before Carter's presidency, in the late 1950s and early to mid–1960s, but they started losing ground in the South (largely because of civil rights) and elsewhere (largely because of Vietnam). Their downward trajectory was interrupted, temporarily, by the political backlash over Watergate.

In 1958, Democrats gained 15 seats, giving them a 64–34 advantage. An interesting footnote is that figure includes both senators from Alaska. The state actually joined the Union after the 1958 elections; although it has established a solid Republican reputation since that time, its first two senators were Democrats.

The party maintained that number in 1960, then increased the total to 67 in the 1962 midterms, thanks to a surge of patriotism following the Cuban Missile Crisis. When Lyndon Johnson won the presidency by a landslide in 1964, his party gained another seat in the Senate, but then it began losing a handful of seats at a time — four losses in 1966, six losses in 1968, four losses in 1970.

Democrats made sure Richard Nixon's coattails were short in 1972; they took back two seats from the GOP, then captured five seats in the election held a few months after Nixon resigned. I'm not sure if it matters, but the 61–seat majority already had been established by the Democrats before Carter won the presidency.

Anyway, Obama isn't unique in terms of his party's share of the Senate, only in how Democrats achieved it — with the help of the defection of a five–term Republican senator from Pennsylvania, voter backlash against a 40–year GOP incumbent from Alaska who was convicted of corruption (a conviction that was overturned by the Obama administration because it uncovered evidence of prosecutorial misconduct) and a protracted election in Minnesota that narrowly unseated another Republican incumbent.

Obama is the fifth Democratic president elected since 1960, and only Clinton took office with fewer Democrats in the Senate.

But Clinton lost more senators in his first midterm than any of the others. We'll never know if they might have fared better if they had faced the voters with Clinton at the top of the ballot.

Common sense says they wouldn't, because Clinton appeared to need that wake–up call to devise the strategy that won a second term. After wallowing in the 40% range in his approval ratings through much of 1994, Clinton began to rally in 1995 and went on to win a second term in 1996 — but he didn't do a lot to help congressional Democrats, and that underscores a point that Swanson and Soraghan make:
"Democrats can't ride Obama's coattails as they did in 2008, when a strong turnout among young and minority voters helped them increase their House and Senate majorities.

"They also can't run against former President George W. Bush, whose unpopular policies were key to their winning control of both chambers in 2006."

Then, Swanson and Soraghan remind us who will be voting next year:
"Instead, they'll face what is expected to be an older and whiter demographic in 2010, which would hurt Democrats in the best of circumstances. President Obama won more than 90% of the black vote in 2008, and he won 66% of the 18–to–29–year–old voting category. In contrast, he lost voters 65 years old and older, taking only 45% of the vote.

"Just as important is that Democrats are losing the messaging war with Republicans on health care, according to David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. It predicted this week that Democrats could lose at least 20 seats in the House in 2010."

There are many variables in elections. As I have pointed out before, George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy both profited at the polls in midterm elections because of patriotic feelings brought on by international crises.

But if the Democrats lose 20 seats in the House, that will be roughly in keeping with the historical trend. In the 17 midterm elections since 1942, the president's party has lost an average of 28 House seats and four Senate seats.

Democrats cannot afford to be complacent.

Both parties spin things in the way that is most favorable to their side, but the fact remains that, even if Obama continues to be personally popular, he won't be on the ballot next year. The coalition that elected Obama — young voters and minority voters — has not proven to be reliable in the past. He needs to motivate those groups so they will show up at the polls. How could he do that? By promoting issues those voters have shown that they care about — job creation, same–sex marriage, immigration reform, marijuana legalization.

But Obama has chosen to press for health care reform — the same issue that rallied Republicans in the early 1990s and paved the way for a GOP congressional takeover that lasted more than a decade. Most young voters are not affected by health care the way most older voters are.

Obama is using a bait that appeals to his opponents, not his supporters.

As Paul Mirengoff observes in the Washington Examiner, "[W]e must ask whether the Republicans will find the kind of coherent message and strong leadership they profited from in 1994. In addition, will the fact that, unlike in 1994, Republicans controlled Congress until recently make voters reluctant to restore them to power? Finally, will Obama's leftist agenda cause voters to cut him and his party less slack than voters cut Republicans in 1982?"

Those are questions that have yet to be answered, but the declining support for Obama's health care initiative suggests movement back toward the center — and possibly to the right of center. It's the kind of thing that should make Democrats think about the near future.

But the Democrats I hear talking about 2010 remain delusional.
"Democrats believe whatever momentum they have lost can be made up if Obama signs a health care bill and the economy is on the upswing in the fall of 2010. Conversely, they acknowledge failure to pass a health care bill will diminish their prospects.

" 'If it passes, our chances are better,' said a Democratic leadership aide. 'If not, they're worse.'

"And vulnerable Democrats in conservative districts have been preparing themselves for fierce challenges, the aide said. For example, they've highlighted their independence by taking stances against leadership on key votes.

" 'This is prognosticators trying to pay the bills,' said a Democratic leadership aide. 'We've been preparing our guys to compete in a difficult climate.' "

Well, good luck with that.

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