Sunday, May 5, 2013

Limping Along to the Midterms

It is my understanding that the term lame duck has been in use for more than 250 years.

It hasn't always been applied to politics. In fact, I've heard its origin was financial. Sometime during the Civil War, it began to be applied to politicians.

Usually, the term is applied to officeholders who are leaving office when their current terms expire — whether they are doing so voluntarily or involuntarily.

Ever since the passage of the 22nd Amendment, which imposed term limits on the office of president, a chief executive is said to be a lame duck — one who loses influence the closer he gets to to the end of his tenure — immediately after his re–election campaign ends, whether he wins or loses.

If he loses (i.e., Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush), he will be a lame duck for a couple of months. It is, of course, humiliating for an incumbent to be rejected by the voters. But, in many ways, it is worse to win re–election. Historically, presidents have enjoyed more power in their first terms than in their second, presumably because the aura of invincibility is gone. The loyal opposition is no longer cowed by an incumbent who will be gone in a few years.

Once the second–term midterms are over, both parties are pretty much in full election mode in anticipation of the open seat in the Oval Office — and the incumbent president becomes largely irrelevant.

(The 22nd Amendment was approved in the 1940s. Until then, presidential tenures were limited only by tradition — and voter preferences.)

That might change if term limits were imposed on all members of Congress. I don't know if such a thing would be constitutional. It might be unsustainable as a violation of states' rights. But if members of Congress were term–limited and faced the possibility of having to deal with only one president for most of their tenures, it might have a profound effect on the implementation of federal policy.

But that is another discussion for another time.

Today I want to address the chances for the president's party to take control of the House in next year's midterms — and give Barack Obama Democrat majorities in both chambers of Congress for the last two years of his presidency.

(That assumes, of course, that the Democrats will hold on to their majority in the Senate, which will be a tall order by itself, given that Democrat–held seats will be on the ballots in red states like Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina and South Dakota.)

At the very least, Democrats need to win 17 seats to take the majority in the House. The situation would be far from ideal if they won only 17. The razor–thin margin would leave no room for error in our polarized democracy, and, as the Democrats' recent setback in the gun–control debate demonstrated, Obama needs that margin for error.

Clearly, the ideal situation would be for the Democrats to have a little breathing room, which probably would require them to capture at least two dozen GOP–held seats.

That may not sound like an impossible task to modern voters, who have seen three elections in just the last decade in which that many seats (or more) flipped to the opposition party — but consider this.

In each of those elections (and two of them were midterms), the flips went against the party that held the White House.

That's the way midterm elections tend to go — and, in more than two centuries of American history, midterm elections have almost always gone against the party in the White House.

Sure, there are exceptions to that — recent ones, in fact — but there were unusual forces at work each time.

In 2002, George W. Bush's Republicans gained ground in the congressional midterms, thanks in large part to Bush's popularity in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and his appeal to patriotism in the buildup for the invasion of Iraq.

And four years earlier, Bill Clinton's Democrats picked up some congressional seats. The economy was booming, and Republicans were seen as having overreached with their attempt to remove Clinton from office.

Besides, after the historic Republican landslide in the 1994 midterms, Democrats really didn't have too many vulnerable congressional seats to defend in 1998.

If you insist on being one of those "the glass is half full" kinds of people — or if you've been drinking a lot of Kool–Aid from that glass — you might see conditions in America being considerably different a year from now than I do.

But I don't see anything like an economic boom on the horizon, not with the implementation of Obamacare coming up and the staggering unemployment crisis that has been allowed to fester (and will, in all probability, grow as a consequence of Obamacare). And, while Republicans don't speak of Obama in glowing terms, neither have they been overreaching the way their forebears did with impeachment 15 years ago; I see no similar backlash that could benefit Democrats.

Barring any unforeseen changes in the next year, 2014 is shaping up to be more like most midterms — and, historically speaking, the second midterm of a president's presidency is worse than the first.

That could be devastating for Obama. He barely clung to his party's Senate majority in his first midterm elections, losing his bullet–proof filibuster–proof advantage in the process, and the House swung to the opposition party by historic proportions.

Just because midterms typically go against the incumbent president's party doesn't mean 2014 will. But my point here is that when incumbents do post midterm gains, it is because circumstances are unusually favorable for them. The circumstances for 2014 don't look too favorable for Obama.

But let's assume that economic circumstances do change for the better. Historically speaking, the tendency for electoral adjustment in American midterms is so strong that such a change probably would not be enough. In 2002 and 1998 — and in 1934, the only other exception I have found — House gains for the incumbent's party were, at best, half of what Obama needs.

Double–digit midterm seat gains in the House have never happened for an incumbent president's party before. Does that mean it can't happen? No. But it does make it exceedingly unlikely, especially since we really only know in hypothetical terms how secure each House district really is since the redistricting that always follows a census. We probably won't have a feel for that until the next presidential election — in 2016.

But we do know a few things about the current House district alignment.

For example, only nine Democrats currently represent districts that Mitt Romney carried in last year's presidential election, and only 17 Republicans currently represent districts that Obama carried. That kind of math doesn't seem particularly favorable for a Democratic takeover.

Of course, the Democrats might not need 17 seats. If Republican former Gov. Mark Sanford's political comeback comes up short in Tuesday's special election in South Carolina's First District, the Democrats might need 16 House seats.

The math still doesn't seem to be there, though, even if Sanford loses.

Short of a dramatic improvement in the economy and/or another instance of overreaching by the Republicans in Congress, the Democrats' best bet is Obama — but he hasn't shown much inclination to campaign for others. Besides, the incumbent's popularity the last two times when the president's party prospered in midterm election was in the 60s — far above Obama, who hovers in 50–50 territory.

Is it impossible for Obama's approval rating to get into 60% territory in the next 18 months? No. Something truly remarkable could happen — the implementation of Obamacare, which is now being characterized as a "train wreck" by members of his own party, could go much better than expected — but right now it looks like a mountain too high.

I wouldn't bet the farm on double–digit gains for Democrats in 2014.

At the same time, though, I wouldn't bet the farm on double–digit gains for Republicans, either. The economy would have to worsen considerably for Republicans to have a realistic shot at that. Some people are predicting that will happen — and, after what we have seen in the last five years, I'm not about to dismiss it — but a kind of acceptable inadequacy is in force.

Unless the acceptable inadequacy becomes unacceptable — and who can say where that line is now? — I expect modest gains for one side or the other in next year's midterms, but nothing approaching double digits.

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