Sunday, October 18, 2015

Scratching the Six-Year Itch

For the last seven or eight years, American voters have seemed to be intent upon turning history on its ear.

They elected and re–elected a black president while taking away his party's advantages in first the House and then the Senate. Aggrieved Democrats have complained that, somehow, the system is rigged against them in midterms. Yet, while these congressional shifts were extreme by historical standards, the pattern has been unmistakable.

The party that is not in possession of the White House almost always does better in midterms than the party in power. Sometimes the Democrats benefit. Sometimes the Republicans benefit. Depends on who holds the White House.

It is Americans' way of preventing the political pendulum from swinging too far in one direction or the other. We like to think of ourselves as fair and balanced, tolerant of all and open to all — whether we really are or not — and we use the ballot to pursue equilibrium. (If we ever actually achieve equilibrium, it is short–lived.)

I have written of this before, and you can find those posts archived elsewhere on this blog.

But a lot of that has addressed congressional politics. It naturally leads to an interesting phenomenon I have observed in presidential politics — but have not written about. Others have, though, to an extent. I think political analyst Charlie Cook wrote something to the effect that, in discussions of presidential politics, whenever the conversation turns to the dynamics of a campaign, the introduction of the phenomenon is "as sure as the sun coming up in the morning."

It is called the "Six–Year Itch," and it holds that voters are inclined to look favorably upon the out–of–power party by the time the current administration has been in place for six years. This really goes beyond the midterm elections, which, as I say, almost never go well for the incumbent party, and has more to do with the popularity of the incumbent during the time of the midterms.

After all, even popular presidents see their parties lose ground in midterms, especially second midterms (which fall in a re–elected president's sixth year in office). About a week before the second midterm of his presidency, Ronald Reagan's approval rating was 63% — but his personal popularity failed to help his Republican Party maintain its grip on its majority in the Senate — a majority it had held since Reagan was first elected in 1980.

Voters, though, treat legislative elections and executive elections differently. Following the '86 midterms, Reagan's popularity took a beating during the Iran–Contra affair, but he bounced back and helped his vice president win the presidency two years later when he was constitutionally prevented from running.

Following Barack Obama's re–election in 2012, the Washington Post sought to shoot holes in the notion of a six–year itch.

"It's overrated," wrote Aaron Blake for the Post. He wrote that column, it is worth noting, less than six weeks after his employer endorsed Obama's re–election bid so you need to consider that as a counterweight to Blake's argument. I was inclined to agree with him, to an extent, when he wrote, "It's not so much that a second midterm isn't trouble for an incumbent president, as much as midterms in general are trouble. And the American public scratches that itch nearly as often in a president's second year as in his sixth year."

That, it seems to me, supports what I wrote about that political pendulum correction. So does the fact that today more Americans than ever do not identify with either party and call themselves independent.

Whether they do so consciously or not, I think most Americans are inclined to give a president — of either party — the two four–year terms in office to which he is constitutionally limited, all things being equal. I guess Americans tend to be reluctant to admit having made a mistake in electing someone a first time. But it depends on what he does with his first four years, and experience tells me that is largely a matter of perception.

If a negative perception takes hold early — if the president suffers a string of setbacks at the start of a presidency — and the perception of misfortune is allowed to harden, it can be almost impossible to overcome. If the president is perceived to have made a mess of things — as Jimmy Carter was — voters look elsewhere for leadership. If a president is perceived to have exceeded expectations, that reservoir of good will makes a landslide re–election likely.

That, I think, is a big reason why some presidents who don't seem to share the same belief system with many of their constituents nevertheless win their votes for second terms.

In those second terms, a president's popularity really is more of a concern to whoever his party nominates to replace him. That is the true coattail effect of which political analysts often speak, and it is the last (if not only) opportunity for a president to have an electoral influence. Coattails are not really factors in House and Senate midterm elections, which are not national and tend to be decided by issues that matter only within the boundaries of states and congressional districts, but they can be factors in national campaigns.

But there is a catch.

Historically, the United States has not been likely to elect candidates who are nominated by an incumbent president's party to succeed that president. Well, I guess that should be narrowed down to the post–World War II period. Prior to the war, the United States was hardly hesitant to stick with the same party in more than two consecutive presidential elections.

It elected Franklin D. Roosevelt four times, then elected the man who succeeded him following his death and just prior to the end of the war, Harry Truman, to a full four–year term of his own. Just prior to FDR's time, Republicans won three straight elections. In fact, Woodrow Wilson's two terms in office in the early 20th century and Grover Cleveland's two nonconsecutive terms in the late 19th century were the only interruptions in a period when Republicans won 14 of 18 national elections.

But since World War II and Truman's decision not to seek another term in 1952, Americans have only elected the same party three straight times once. That was in the 1980s, when Reagan won twice and then his vice president, George H.W. Bush, was elected to succeed him.

Reagan, as I pointed out, enjoyed solid approval ratings just before his party sustained significant Senate losses in 1986 — but that was on the legislative side. His personal popularity benefited Bush in the 1988 election.

Not that Bush's opponent, Michael Dukakis, didn't seem to do everything in his power to sabotage his own campaign.

And that, I think, underscores an important point about the six–year itch. It is susceptible to the dynamics that are unique to each campaign.

The popularity of the incumbent president seems to have a lot to do with the outcome, but that is no guarantee. Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed approval ratings that exceeded 50% for much of his presidency, but his vice president lost narrowly in his first bid for the presidency.

That leads me to another observation: It is also important for the president's would–be successor to take advantage of the resource of a popular incumbent. To my knowledge, Richard Nixon never distanced himself from Eisenhower, but the Republican ticket was hurt by the recession the country experienced in 1960.

Al Gore didn't embrace the popular Bill Clinton in 2000, and that was a decision that apparently cost him the presidency. Clinton's approval rating just before the 1998 midterms was over 60%, but Gore, while winning the 2000 popular vote, lost the Electoral College.

Since the advent of the polling era, few presidents have been popular with a majority of voters at the ends of their presidencies, and their would–be successors suffered for it. In 1966, after six years of the Kennedy–Johnson presidency, Democrat Lyndon Johnson had an approval rating of about 43% — roughly the share of the vote his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, received on Election Day two years later.

1974, after nearly two full terms of the Nixon–Ford presidency, Republican Gerald Ford's approval rating was around 47%, and he narrowly lost the election to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

History says the voters will have an itch to scratch next year, and Obama, like Ford, hovers below the 50% mark. Ford, of course, had the advantages of incumbency in the election year of 1976, and Obama will not be allowed to seek a third term, which suggests that 2016 will be an uphill climb for the Democrats' nominee.

It looks like it will be the Republican's race to lose.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

America Needs Another Ike

"Censorship, in my opinion, is a stupid and shallow way of approaching the solution to any problem. Though sometimes necessary, as witness a professional and technical secret that may have a bearing upon the welfare and very safety of this country, we should be very careful in the way we apply it, because in censorship always lurks the very great danger of working to the disadvantage of the American nation."

Dwight D. Eisenhower
April 24, 1950

As a student of history, I tend to believe that Dwight Eisenhower could not have been elected president in the modern incarnation of a world that was only beginning to develop when he served as America's commander–in–chief.

Presidents tend to be products of their times, not the other way around. Even if they enter the presidency with a specific agenda, circumstances often force them to change direction in ways they never anticipated. Presidents aren't prophets, and few probably would have chosen the crises they had to face.

But they are also influenced by the technology that exists when they live and serve. Some presidents have been slower than others to embrace emerging technology, and some have been ill–equipped to do so. Most presidents have been the first presidents to do something, but history always remembers things like:
  • the first president to be photographed (John Quincy Adams — although he wasn't president when the photograph was taken);
  • the first president to ride in a train (Andrew Jackson);
  • the first president to have a telephone installed in the White House (Rutherford B. Hayes);
  • the first president to ride in a submarine and an airplane (Theodore Roosevelt in both instances);
  • the first president to own an automobile (William Howard Taft);
  • the first president to give a radio broadcast from the White House (Calvin Coolidge), and
  • the first president to appear on television (Franklin D. Roosevelt).
In a more recent presidential first, Bill Clinton was the first president to send an email, but apparently — and contrary to what his wife has said — he hasn't made any use of email in his post–presidential years.

Eisenhower, who was born 125 years ago next Wednesday, was the last president born in the 19th century. He was not far removed from his heroic military leadership in World War II, an experience that clearly shaped his view of the world, and he benefited from the public's good will because of it. But America was only beginning to see emerging technological advances, often made possible by war–related research and development, that would come to play important roles in American politics in the not–so–distant future.

In Ike's day, for example, it wasn't crucial to look good on television because TV wasn't yet a commonplace item in every home. By the time Ike's vice president, Richard Nixon, was elected president, there were a lot more TVs in American homes, and how a candidate came across on television was more important. Today it is impossible to imagine a candidate who does not give a good impression on television being much of a success.

In many ways, that is reflected by a growing tendency to favor candidates because of which demographic group(s) they are believed to bring to the electoral table. The face of America is its president, and Americans increasingly show an inclination for that face to be a particular color or gender — and, in equal and opposite proportions, disdain for what Martin Luther King Jr. would call the content of a person's character.

Ike wasn't very photogenic, when you get right down to it. And he wasn't a stemwinder of a speaker, either. But he had some core virtues. Modern politicians would do well to follow his lead. The country certainly would benefit.

He said things that made a lot of sense, things that both Democrats and Republicans ought to study today, but he showed no penchant for what is known today as a "sound bite." He probably thought they were frivolous and overly simple, but such things win elections these days. Common sense often cannot be boiled down to a single phrase that is suitable for a bumper sticker — although "I Like Ike" wasn't bad for its day.

Ike might have been persuaded to run as a Democrat. He had no party affiliation and was pursued by officials from both parties to seek their nominations. It is interesting that House Speaker Sam Rayburn brushed off talk about Eisenhower seeking the presidency when the topic was first raised in 1948: "Good man," Rayburn said, "but wrong business."

Eisenhower decided not to seek the presidency in 1948, and many people thought he had passed up his only opportunity. It was widely assumed at that time that Tom Dewey, who had lost the 1944 election to Franklin D. Roosevelt, would be elected over Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman. It was further assumed that Dewey would be re–elected in 1952 — and Eisenhower, at age 66, would be too old to seek the presidency by 1956.

But Truman won in what is still regarded as a major upset, then became phenomenally unpopular and chose not to seek another term in 1952. By that time, Eisenhower was ready to declare himself a Republican after voicing his disagreements with Democrat policies. He may have been just as motivated by a desire to prevent Sen. Robert Taft, a non–interventionist, from winning the Republican nomination.

Eisenhower did deny Taft the nomination — after one of the closest, most bitterly fought presidential nomination battles in American history — but I have always wondered if it had as much (if not more) to do with Taft's unpopular opposition to the postwar Nuremberg trials. (In the interest of fairness, I should point out that future President John F. Kennedy praised Taft in "Profiles in Courage" for taking a principled stand in spite of public opposition.)

During his tenure, Ike balanced the budget three times and cut the federal debt as a share of GDP. He was criticized as a "do–nothing" president, probably because of his domestic record, particularly Ike's record on civil rights. Seen from the 21st century, Ike's record on promoting racial equality appears to be unimpressive, but he took some important steps. Truman gets credit, and rightfully so, for desegregating the military, but Ike took it farther, ending the segregation that existed in VA hospitals and schools on military installations. His administration also navigated legislative waters in 1957 to pass the first civil rights act since Reconstruction.

Having grown up in Arkansas, one of the first things I learned about Eisenhower was that he enforced a desegregation court order that had been defied by Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas. It's worth noting that one of the members of Congress who opposed the president's action was Democrat John F. Kennedy.

I studied this when I took Arkansas history in school; in those days, I think it was a class everyone took in the fifth grade. For me that would have been more than a decade after the Little Rock Central crisis, but my memory is that our textbooks were brand–spanking new, so new that the books squeaked when you opened a cover or turned a page. Ours was the first class in my hometown to study an unbiased account of that moment in our home state's history. Those books had not been in use the previous year, when a text that was less balanced and tended to favor Faubus was used.

The New Republic's Richard Strout, bewildered by Eisenhower's soaring popularity (which seldom strayed below 50%), complained that "the less he does the more they love him." He didn't understand, as Ike did, that the American public was weary from the back–to–back experiences of the Great Depression and World War II. In the '50s, Americans craved stability.

Black Americans were still inclined to heavily support Democrats, as they had been since the ascent of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932, but in 1956 Eisenhower received 39% of black America's vote when he sought a second term. Within a decade, Republican presidential nominees were receiving much less than 10% of black votes. Win or lose, has any Republican presidential nominee even come close to matching Eisenhower's achievement in the last 60 years?

In his rather modest, soft–spoken Midwestern way, Eisenhower achieved things without feeling the need to resort to self–promotion. He respected constitutional limits — on the use of military power, of the capacity of the government and the role of the president — and worked within them. He didn't try to get around them.

But there were still times when he wanted credit for things he did.

"The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration," he said after leaving the White House. "We kept the peace. People ask how it happened — by God, it didn't just happen, I'll tell you that."

We could use another Eisenhower today. Unfortunately, no candidate in either party remotely resembles him.