Friday, October 18, 2013

Democrats Not Likely to Catch a 'Wave' in 2014

The federal shutdown ended this week — just in time to avoid default.

As the government shutdown dragged on, I heard some Democrats gleefully anticipating a "wave" election next year that will restore a Democrat majority to the House of Representatives.

With public opinion polls showing Congress' approval at record low levels, I suppose that is a normal reaction, even one to be expected, but history simply doesn't support it. Frankly, it sounds a lot like the talk that was prevalent four years ago, just after Barack Obama took office, that held that Democrats would be in charge of things for a generation, at least.

Of course, history has been turned on its ear in the last two presidential elections. A nation that had never so much as nominated a black man for president before 2008 has now elected a black president twice. With Gallup reporting that, less than a year after Obama's re–election, congressional approval is at 11%, doesn't it follow that Republicans in Congress are in, to use a George H.W. Bush expression, deep doo–doo?

Well, that assumes that a midterm election is really no different than a presidential election — and that simply has not been true historically. It wasn't even true in the first midterm election of this president's tenure. Less than two years after he took office with stunningly high approval ratings (when there was literally nothing of which to approve or disapprove), Obama saw his party lose more than 60 seats in the House.

Democrats regained eight seats in 2012, but that was achieved with the president's name at the top of the ballot. Having Obama on the ballot brought out many voters who typically do not vote, just as it did four years earlier. But, without him on the ballot, those voters reverted to historical form and did not participate in the 2010 midterms.

At best, Obama will be an advocate for others in 2014 — that is, when he chooses to participate. He didn't tend to lend much support to Democrats who were on the ballot in 2010 until it was too late to make much difference.

The great unknown about 2014 is the impact that Obamacare will have. In the first 2½ weeks, there have been conflicting accounts about the success or failure of the initial efforts, mostly focusing on the woes of the websites being used to enroll people. In a year, it will be clearer how the system is performing, whether it is delivering everything that was promised, and that is sure to influence the election.

But this year's shutdown will be forgotten. After all, another one is looming in just 90 days.

The midterms in the sixth year of a presidency have been, historically speaking, brutal for the president's party. The exceptions to that truly are few and far between.

No doubt, Democrats will recall that they fared all right in the midterms that were held in Bill Clinton's sixth year in office, but that was more backlash against the Republicans for going ahead with unpopular impeachment proceedings than anything else.

Sixth–year midterms typically go poorly for the party in the White House. Recent history tells the tale. George W. Bush's Republicans lost both chambers of Congress in 2006. Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost the Senate to the Democrats in 1986. In the sixth year of the Nixon–Ford presidency, the Democrats (helped in no small measure by the Watergate scandal) padded their majorities in the House and Senate — by nearly the same number of seats they lost in 1966, the sixth year of the Kennedy–Johnson presidency.

Sixth–year midterms almost always go badly for the president's party, no matter how popular the president may be. Reagan's approval rating was in the 60s in October 1986. Dwight Eisenhower's approval rating was in the 50s in his sixth–year midterm in 1958.

The more unpopular the president is, though (and it is worth noting that, while approval for Congress currently is historically low, Barack Obama isn't doing terribly well, either), the greater the challenge for his party.

There have been only two real exceptions to that in midterms in general in the last 80 years — 2002 and 1998 — and both could be said to have been due to unique (or almost unique) circumstances.

In 2002, the country was still reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Bush and the Republicans were rewarded for their efforts to stop terrorism with gains of eight House seats and two Senate seats. Four years later, in the "wave" of 2006, they lost 30 House seats and six Senate seats.

In 1998, Clinton's Democrats benefited from backlash against Republicans for their insistence on pursuing impeachment proceedings. They didn't really gain much, just four House seats and no Senate seats, but that's better than parties in their sixth year of occupying the White House typically do — and it was a whole lot better than Democrats did during the first midterm election of Clinton's presidency — when they lost 54 seats.

It's possible, of course, that 2014 will turn out to be a rare wave midterm that benefits the occupant of the White House, but, at the moment, it appears to be lacking the catalyst that could make that happen.

Even under the most advantageous midterm conditions, an incumbent's party hasn't won more House seats than Bush's Republicans did since 1902, exactly a century earlier, when both parties gained more than a dozen seats following the 1900 Census and the creation of 29 House seats.

Obama's Democrats need to win more than twice as many House seats as Bush's Republicans did 11 years ago merely to earn an extremely narrow edge in that chamber. To achieve that, it seems to me, Obama's agenda will need to gain some serious traction in the next year, but the steam seemed to have left that engine before the shutdown. There was already talk of how lame–duck status had been settling in even before Obama began his saber rattling over Syria. It might be set in stone by now.

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