Thursday, April 22, 2010

Channeling Dead Presidents

I live in the state of Texas.

I grew up in the state of Arkansas. Many of my friends, from childhood to adulthood, still live there.

For awhile, I lived in Oklahoma. Some of my friends from that period in my life still live there.

All three states voted Republican in what was clearly a Democratic year two years ago. A few months later, Barack Obama was in the White House, and lots of people — not just Democrats — were assuming that, because the Republicans had screwed things up so royally when they were in charge, Democrats would be in control of the government for a generation — if not longer.

I didn't buy it — for several reasons — and I warned Democrats that, historically, voters turn against the party in power during the midterm elections. Evidence supporting my position keeps piling up, but some Democrats continue to live in a state of denial.

Not all of them, though. In fact, the message may have gotten through to the Democrat who matters most — Obama.

The best evidence of that may have been Obama's speech on behalf of California Sen. Barbara Boxer in Los Angeles on Monday.

A year ago, most political observers probably would have laughed off the slightest suggestion that Boxer might face any kind of problem being re–elected. California has been solidly Democratic for the last two decades, and Boxer's share of the vote has gone up each time she has asked for another term in the Senate.

But the backlash against Democrats in 2010 has become so pronounced that, even though they stopped short of predicting that Boxer's seat is in jeopardy, the analysts for The Rothenberg Political Report wrote in February that they were adjusting the status of the race to reflect its more competitive nature.

A few days earlier, Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball mentioned Boxer's seat as one that could shift the balance of power if everything else fell into place for the Republicans — but, Sabato observed, "observers always say she's vulnerable and she ends up winning handily every time."

That may be true, but there are a couple of things that aren't considered in that remark:
  • Unemployment is 13% in California. That's far higher than it has ever been when Boxer sought a Senate term, and it is nearly three full points higher than it was when Obama became president.

    What's more, the higher the state's unemployment rate has been when Boxer faced the voters, the tighter the race has been for her.

    When she was first elected in 1992, she won by less than 5%. Unemployment in California that fall was near 10%.

    When she sought a second term in 1998, unemployment in California was below 6% — her margin at the polls doubled.

    And, in 2004, when she sought her third term, the state's unemployment rate dropped from 7% in January to less than 6% when Californians went to the polls in November. Boxer won with a margin in the 20–point range.

    Of course, when reflecting on Boxer's electoral history, it is worth remembering that she hasn't faced a significant challenge in a re–election campaign. That seems likely to change this year.

  • Whereas some states have developed reputations, honed over many decades, for being reliable (if not static) supporters of one party or another, California's political history seems to be more cyclical.

    In presidential campaigns, California has voted for the Democratic nominee in the last five elections. Prior to that, it voted Republican in nine of the previous 10 elections. Admittedly, though, in seven of those elections, Republicans had someone from California on the national ticket so presidential politics might not provide the most appropriate barometer.

    Its representation in the Senate has been a little more consistent. Democrats have held Boxer's seat for more than 40 years, but, for nearly 20 years prior to that, it was held by Republicans (including Richard Nixon). Boxer's colleague, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has been in the Senate for 18 years. Her seat was in Republican hands for 15 years before she won a special election in 1992.
The point is that California politics is volatile.

And the theme in 2010 is not necessarily anti–Democrat. In large part because of the economy and the devastatingly high unemployment rate, the mood is decidedly anti–incumbent, and that is a different kettle of fish. It means Republicans may well lose some seats this year, too. But, because more of the incumbents in both the House and the Senate are Democrats, Democrats have more to lose.

How many seats will they lose? Well, that's a tougher question to answer. Rothenberg and Sabato don't like to commit themselves until much closer to an election because so much can happen. (I'm sure that most political pundits are acutely aware of the fact that the Obama–McCain race was much tighter until the economic meltdown less than two months before the 2008 election. After that, Obama's lead really began to grow.)

One thing that political analysts seem to agree on, though, is that, while there are still several months left before the midterm elections, the seemingly glacial pace of job creation makes it unlikely that voters will see the kind of gains they need to see to be convinced that real improvements are being made.

This is the point where we start losing some of the die–hard Obama supporters, who simply can't understand — or refuse to understand — why people "forget" that George W. Bush was president when the economy imploded or can't connect the dots between upticks in the stock market and a recovering economy.

I don't think the problem is that people have forgotten that Bush was president when the economy tanked. The problem is that he's ancient news. They elected Obama and the Democrats to clean up the mess in 2008. And Obama and the Democrats will be judged on the basis of what has happened since November 2008.

You see, for the last 30 years, voters have applied the Ronald Reagan Rule to the decisions they make at the polls. What is the Ronald Reagan Rule? It's a modified version of his famous line at the end of his debate with Carter in 1980: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

Since then, voters have only allowed two years, not four, for things to get better. Things weren't better in 1982, and the voters punished the Republicans for it. They rose up against George H.W. Bush in 1992, then turned on Bill Clinton and the Democrats in 1994 when the economy remained sluggish.

I think the same thing is happening in 2010. It's great that the stock market has regained much of its lost value — but how many of the millions who were thrown out of work in the last couple of years have been playing the market, do you think?

"[H]istory suggests that it is not enough for the economy to be headed in the right direction," John Judis wrote in The New Republic last September, "it has to be headed in the right direction in tangible ways that voters can see. Economists pronounced the recession of the early 1990s over in March 1991. But, when unemployment continued to rise through 1991 and most of 1992 and real wages stagnated, the public perceived the economy to still be declining — and it punished George H.W. Bush accordingly."

So Obama came to California this week to rally the troops. But why? California won't hold its primary until June, and Boxer is not being opposed by a major challenger for the Democratic nomination. Her fight will come in the fall. Rasmussen Reports says she is maintaining her lead over her three potential Republican rivals, but she's mired in the low 40s against each.

If the polls are right, as much as one–fifth of the electorate is up for grabs.

Anyway, there may be reason to believe that Obama, at last, has learned a few things from American political history. When he came to California, he apparently came prepared to channel some dead presidents and use their tactics in his effort to retain Democratic majorities in Congress.

He channeled Ronald Reagan when he did as many of his fellow Democrats have been urging him to do and blamed the economic woes on the Republicans. Reagan won the presidency in large part by blaming Carter for the economy. Then he tried to do the same thing two years later, but the GOP lost ground in the House. In 1982, Carter was old news, the same as Bush is today. It was Reagan's economy.

I wonder if the shift by Obama will seem abrupt to voters who heard him sing the praises of bipartisanship for a year. It seems like the pragmatic thing for a president to do.

And Obama channeled Harry Truman's complaints about an obstructionist, Republican "do–nothing Congress" when he asserted that Republicans have been blocking his efforts — even though Obama has a huge majority in both chambers (Truman's Democrats were in the minority in both houses).

Truman was able to win back the Congress in the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" election of 1948, but the Democrats' hold on both chambers was short–lived.

Common sense tells me that isn't the best way to win the cooperation of the Republicans in future battles. So has Obama given up on bipartisanship now? Well, if he hasn't, I don't think he's chosen the best way to promote that part of his agenda.

Maybe he still would like to get some Republican support for his initiatives. But perhaps he has realized that they are determined not to cooperate with him. Clinton could probably give Obama some useful advice for getting things done in that kind of atmosphere.

And I'll bet he has some tips for winning re–election and functioning as president for six years with the opposition in control of Congress.

But I wouldn't recommend it.

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