Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lessons From History

Few people have been studying American politics as long as Michael Barone, who has co–authored the biennial "Almanac of American Politics" since 1972.

When you hear Barone speak, it is fairly clear that he views things from a conservative perspective, but, as one who has been reading those almanacs for many years, I can assure you that he maintains his neutrality in his assessments of states and congressional districts. He may not agree with the voting history of a particular state or district, but he never allows that to interfere with his Joe Friday just–the–facts–ma'am approach.

If you lean to the left politically, your view of him may be skewed by the knowledge that he is a conservative, but it would be a serious mistake to allow that personal bias to deny you the benefit of his considerable expertise.

Anyway ...

If you have been reading midterm–oriented commentary in the last six months or so, you have undoubtedly seen many references to the 1982 and 1994 midterm elections, when two men (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton) who had been elected president because of bad economies just two years earlier suffered midterm setbacks for the same reason.

Many people, including myself, have speculated that Barack Obama is walking down that same path.

I have not always agreed with the reasoning that others have used to arrive at that conclusion. I can only speak for myself, and my conclusion has been based on certain historical observations, the most basic being that midterm elections almost always go against the president's party.

Sometimes the losses have not been severe — almost always because the prevailing conditions have not been too severe. But when the economy is bad and unemployment is high, the president's party suffers — even if, as Obama's supporters repeatedly insist, the problems began when someone else was in charge.

The vast majority of the arguments on this focus on 1982 and 1994 because those are the most recent examples, the ones most people are likely to remember.

But Barone has applied his scholarly study of elections to an intriguing article in The American that examines what happened in the first election after the end of World War II.

In "What 1946 Can Tell Us About 2010," Barone writes, "Republicans in that election gained 13 seats in the Senate and emerged with a 51–45 majority there, the largest majority that they enjoyed between 1930 and 1980. And they gained 55 seats in the House, giving them a 246–188 majority in that body, the largest majority they have held since 1930."

In his essay — which deserves to be read in its entirety — Barone writes of the similarities he sees between 1946 and 2010:
  1. Democrats were promising (or threatening) to vastly increase the size and scope of government.
  2. Democrats in 1945–1946 were closely allied with labor unions, which were deeply involved in politics and were avidly seeking more members and more bargaining power.
  3. In both 1945–1946 and 2009–2010, opposition to Democrats rose and support of Republicans increased during the electoral cycle, but those increases came later in the cycle in 1945–1946 than they have in 2009–2010.
Barone writes that Republican gains in 1946 were all the more impressive because the Republicans "did not seriously contest most seats in the South." That shouldn't really surprise anyone, least of all Barone with his background. In 1946, the really influential events of the civil rights era had not yet happened, and it was civil rights, more than anything, that led to the political schism in the South. There were hints of what was to come two years later, when the passage of the civil rights plank of the party platform prompted some Southern Democrats to support Strom Thurmond's segregationist Dixiecrat ticket in the 1948 presidential election. But Democrats continued to dominate the politics of the South for the next 20 years. A lot of things were different in 1946. Times have changed. The fortunes of both parties have ebbed and flowed in the last 64 years. Nearly all of the American voters who were old enough to participate in the 1946 midterms are gone now, but their descendants remain and many of them probably perpetuate their parents' and grandparents' political views and voting behavior, the same as they share their family names. Parallels between the two years could produce similar results with the electorate. And, writes Barone, "[t]he parallels between the political situation in 1946 and 2010 are limited but instructive." Of course, one of the instructive points that needs to be taken from Barone's essay is that 1946 represents a worst–case scenario for Democrats. Even Barone acknowledges from the beginning of his essay that 1946 was "the biggest Republican victory of the last 80 years." When the economy is productive (or at least stable), when unemployment is low, when the times are not turbulent, there is less of an inclination on the part of voters to make wholesale change in a midterm election.

And a fact that isn't mentioned in the essay is that, by 1946, Republicans had been in the minority in both houses of Congress for nearly 20 years. That much time spent out of power can bolster the case for change and make things difficult for the majority party — even if the majority party has managed to avoid corruption and scandal.

But conditions are far from ideal, and the Democrats haven't demonstrated that they are more resistant to corruption and scandal than the Republicans were when they were in charge. It will be up to the voters to decide whether that negates the advantages Democrats enjoyed in the last two elections.

The Democrats would be wise to take whatever they can from Barone's assessment.

Perhaps there is little, at this point, that the Democrats can do to change their electoral fate. If so, I can tell you something else that Obama has in common with Reagan and Clinton — whether it is justified or not, he projects the assurance that the course he is following is exactly what is called for, that it is right, that more time is needed before it will be clear to all — or, at least, to most.

That attitude didn't sell in the midterms of 1982 and 1994, and it may not sell in 2010, but it got both Reagan and Clinton re–elected, and it might serve Obama equally well.

Right now, Obama appears to want a second term. But you never know. He might change his mind if he has to spend two years scrapping with a hostile majority — or a hostile and reinforced minority — in Congress.

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