Friday, July 30, 2010

Historical Inevitability

When I was young, I remember my father telling me that America had survived as a nation because it always seemed to get the kind of leadership it needed when it was needed.

At the time, I guess it struck me as being his personal version of "Manifest Destiny" — i.e., it is America's destiny to get the kind of leadership it needs when it needs it.

I don't remember how old I was when he made this observation to me. I might have been in high school ... might have been in junior high. I don't remember if there was a particular crisis going on when he said that. Could have been anything, I suppose. There was always something in those days — Vietnam, civil rights, Watergate, oil embargoes, etc. — that seemed to be crying out for leadership that never really came.

I guess it's what George H.W. Bush called "the vision thing." (Personally, I was kind of relieved that he didn't call it "the vision thingy." That just didn't seem very presidential to me.)

And I wonder if that belief that my father expressed is a byproduct of living through the Great Depression and the inspiring presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. If that is so, then perhaps it goes beyond my father or even his circle of friends.

Perhaps that is what the majority of the people of my father's generation believe — that America is destined for greatness because great leaders will always emerge when they are needed. That was, after all, their experience in their formative years.

But that hasn't always been the experience of the people of my generation. And sometimes I wonder if the great leaders truly were as great as advertised or if they just looked great when they were compared to those who came before.

Abraham Lincoln, for example, is typically regarded as one of the greatest presidents, and he was preceded (and followed) by strings of presidents who are generally considered by historians to be among the worst in our history.

(I don't mean to suggest that Lincoln was not a great president. I believe that he was. But I also believe there was a certain amount of truth in a comedy bit on a David Frye album in the early 1970s, in which he presented a fictitious conversation between President Nixon and his party rival, Nelson Rockefeller, about how to derail the possible presidential candidacy of infamous party–switcher John Lindsay, the mayor of New York.

(The Nixon character, as I recall, fretted about how good Lindsay would look on television and how tough he would be to defeat in Nixon's campaign for re–election. Rockefeller reassuringly replied — in a reference to a notorious sanitation strike during Lindsay's administration that left mounds of trash piled up all over the city — that "anyone would look very good, in my opinion, standing next to all that garbage all the time.")

The three presidents who came before FDR — Harding, Coolidge and Hoover — ranked in the bottom one–third, according to a survey of scholars conducted by Siena College this year.

If you study the American presidency for any length of time, you're bound to come to the conclusion that we've had a heckuva lot more truly terrible presidencies than truly great ones.

Oddly enough, most of those truly terrible presidencies began with a certain amount of enthusiasm and optimism. With the exception of a few who became president after the previous president's death or resignation, most of the presidents who are today rated as terrible were chosen by the voters in a democratic election.

As ludicrous as it may seem today, people actually did vote for James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce and Warren Harding — and others who are not remembered favorably in the history books. And those people must have been nearly as enthusiastic about electing those presidents as they were when they elected Lincoln or the Roosevelts — or Barack Obama.

Well, regardless of how much enthusiasm accompanied the elections of America's presidents — both the truly great and the truly awful — it is virtually impossible to predict how an individual presidency will be regarded by historians before it has even begun.

However, a genuine historical inevitability (i.e., not a recent phenomenon) has arisen: Except for rare circumstances (which usually involve some sort of international crisis), midterm elections go against the party in power.

But it isn't always so inevitable. In Congressional Quarterly, contributing writer Stuart Rothenberg reminds readers that, until last summer, there was practically no talk among insiders in either party that suggested that Democrats would lose ground in 2010.

Early in Obama's presidency, Rothenberg writes, Democrats were encouraged by several factors ("Republican retirements, Democratic incumbency and financial advantages, and new Democratic opportunities") that indicated to them that, even if the traditional backlash against the party in power occurred, they could minimize their losses. And Republicans, while hopeful, were aware of the considerable damage that had been done to their "brand."

All of this assumed that events would follow a predictable pattern — which, of course, they almost never do.

Nearly 15 months ago, Rothenberg writes, "my newsletter ... noted that 'small Republican gains would seem the most likely outcome' of the midterms, adding that the House 'is not at risk in next year's elections.' "

Even though conditions were bordering on the horrific when Obama took office, there seemed to be a willingness on the part of the public to give him and his Democrats in Congress plenty of time. Polls seemed to confirm this. When he became president, Obama's approval ratings tended to be in the 60s. But those days ended by June of 2009. For the next several months, Obama's approval ratings mostly languished in the 50s, and they have been almost entirely in the 40s since the start of 2010.

"My point in resurrecting all these numbers and projections," says Rothenberg, "is that it was not always inevitable that Republicans would make large House gains, no matter what you may read and hear now."

And he's right about that. If you don't believe me, look it up.

Now, approval numbers in the 40s don't tend to make a president an asset on the campaign trail — but, historically, a president's party still can do reasonably well in a midterm election, as Rothenberg points out.

But that isn't a sure thing. Even FDR, who enjoyed an approval rating in the 50s at the time of the 1938 midterms and was the beneficiary of a wartime approval rating in the 70s during the 1942 midterm campaign, saw his party lose ground. It can be argued, though, that no other outcome really was possible. In 1938, Democrats held 75 of 96 Senate seats and 333 of 435 House seats; in 1942, they held 66 Senate seats and 267 House seats.

In hindsight, there was nowhere to go but down.

On the other hand, FDR's successor, Harry Truman, faced a different problem. His party had fewer seats to defend in both houses of Congress, but Truman's approval rating fell below 50 in the late spring of 1946 and continued to decline, settling in the mid–30s by Election Day. Truman's Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the stock market crashed in 1929.

The Democrats regained control of Congress in 1948, when Truman pulled off his famed "upset" triumph in his campaign for re–election, and he even enjoyed a brief surge in popularity early in 1949. But he dropped below 50% for good more than a year before the 1950 midterms and, by the time Americans went to the polls in November 1950, Truman's approval rating was in the upper 30s or low 40s. His party retained control of both chambers but lost six Senate seats and 29 House seats.

As the years have gone by, the lesson appears to be this: Once a president slips below that 50% approval level, it seems to be increasingly difficult for his fortunes — and, by extension, his party's fortunes — to bounce back, particularly in this era of 24–hour cable news.

To modern observers, George W. Bush is the most flagrant example of this, but it would be a mistake to blame it exclusively on the CNNs and the Fox Newses of the world. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson received the highest share of the popoular vote that a presidential candidate ever received, but after the summer of 1966, he seldom enjoyed approval ratings that exceeded 50 — and his party began a downward trajectory that continued through several election cycles.

For the most part, Bush's approval rating fell below 50% — permanently — after the Terri Schiavo episode in the spring of 2005. By the time that Democrats regained control of both chambers of Congress in November 2006, polls were reporting approval ratings in the 30s.

Obama's rating isn't as low as Bush's — but he had much farther to fall. And the wound that has been suffered by those who supported him two years ago and now feel, to varying degrees, betrayed by the gap between the expectations and the reality — a stubbornly high unemployment rate in spite of Obama's insistence (all evidence to the contrary) that he focuses on job creation every day; two wars that continue to rage on in spite of Obama's insistence during the campaign that he would bring them to an end; a three–month flow of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico that made Obama seem impotent — is deep.

Obama and his supporters are tumbling into a trap I have seen before. Some men — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton come to mind — are successful in their campaigns for the presidency in part because they blame conditions on the other party, but that turns out to be a double–edged sword. No matter how long it took for the bad conditions to surface, voters expect immediate (or almost immediate) improvement.

In the absence of evidence of such improvement, Obama and the Democrats resort to reminding voters that they inherited this mess from the previous administration. When a president focuses on what he inherited rather than what he is doing about the problem, he loses the confidence of the voters.

"Actions, indeed, do have consequences," Rothenberg writes. "In this case, the combination of an aggressive Democratic agenda, a weak jobs recovery and a large deficit has created a political environment very different from the one 18 months ago."

Argue if you must that an increased deficit was a necessary evil to halt the economic erosion. Voters don't see much in the way of job gains — and that is the bang for their bucks that the voters are looking for.

In recent weeks, Rothenberg has written that:
  • A total of 88 House seats (76 held by Democrats) are in play this year, and Republicans are projected to gain 28–33, but "it is important to note that considerably larger Republican gains in excess of 39 seats are quite possible."

    A gain of 40 seats would give the Republicans control of the House.

  • Democrats, who currently control 57 seats plus two independents who generally vote with them, now look likely to lose five to eight seats in November.

    That's roughly what the projection has been for awhile, but the bad news for Democrats is that Senators Boxer, Feingold and Murray are only slight favorites for re–election.

    Voters clearly have doubts about the Republicans controlling the Senate, and Rothenberg concedes that "[t]he chances that the next Senate will have a Republican majority are not great, but even three months ago there were not enough Senate seats in play to imagine a Republican gain of 10 seats. Now there are, with 11 Democratic seats definitely competitive."
Rothenberg isn't the only political analyst who anticipates rough sledding for the Democrats this fall.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, runs the Crystal Ball, which has been uncannily accurate in its projections over the years. Currently, the Crystal Ball expects Democrats to lose seven Senate seats and 32 House seats, narrowly retaining control of both chambers.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who worried about the midterms earlier in the summer, seems to have had a change of heart and has said recently that he expects Democrats to hold Congress in the midterms.

Perhaps they will. But if they don't, Democrats should remember what Rothenberg says:

"It didn't have to be this way."

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