Monday, November 6, 2017

The Politics of the Unusual

Tomorrow Americans in some places are going to the polls, but this being an odd–numbered year means that most elections will be held next year.

Which brings me to another point: There is conventional wisdom about everything, I suppose, but it only goes so far, and then you're in uncharted territory.

The upcoming midterm elections of 2018 are a perfect example.

On the one hand, there is the conventional wisdom that the president's party always struggles in midterm elections. This is not a recent phenomenon. This is something that has been happening throughout our history. It doesn't disproportionately affect either party. George W. Bush's Republicans suffered just as much in 2006 as Bill Clinton's Democrats in 1994 or Barack Obama's Democrats in 2010.

Sometimes it is a very modest thing, with the president's party losing little ground, if any, on Capitol Hill; other times it is quite spectacular.

There are exceptions, of course, but those elections are usually preceded by a one–of–a–kind event — such as when George W. Bush's Republicans gained ground in Congress in the election a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

There was no precedent for that in American history.

I guess the closest thing would be the election that was held the year after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but that would not have been a good predictor for 2002. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats struggled in the 1942 midterms. Quite a different voter response. But it was a different world. Americans hadn't been able to watch the attack live in their living rooms in 1941.

There were other differences, too. Most, if not all, of the casualties at Pearl Harbor were in military service. They had agreed to put their lives on the line when they signed up. Their losses were tragic, but, to be honest, they came with the territory. Most, if not all, of the casualties on Sept. 11 were civilians. The folks who were working in the Twin Towers that morning took certain risks when they took their positions, too — there are risks with every job, aren't there? — but those risks had never before included the realistic possibility of an airplane deliberately crashing into your workplace.

Back to 2018.

On the other hand, while conventional wisdom can provide some helpful clues to voter behavior, recent elections have revealed an independent streak that was never seen before in the electorate — well, it had been seen before but never in the numbers we saw last year. Maybe the voters don't like being taken for granted and decided en masse — a la Peter Finch in "Network" — not to take it anymore. Folks in both parties have been guilty of taking voting blocs for granted. So if the voters feel taken for granted, it seems to me that candidates in both parties should be particularly sensitive to their constituents' concerns right now.

There are other things that usually contribute to the incumbent party's prospects — the pocketbook issues that directly affect people's lives. Is the economy thriving or sputtering? Is unemployment high or low?

The approaching midterms should provide fascinating research and lecture fodder for political scientists. They know the conventional wisdom, and they have been watching the news. They know that the polls indicate how unpopular the president is. That makes it sound like 2018 should be a big year for the out–of–power party. All the precedents of the last two centuries point to it.

Except that there is no precedent for 2018, either. Not really.

And that, I guess, is one of the consequences of the 2016 election, an election that was widely believed to be Hillary Clinton's to lose. And then she did precisely that.

We have rarely, if ever, had presidential elections like that one — in which one candidate seemed all but certain to win and then did not — and in my studies of history, I have found only a couple of elections that came close. One was the 2000 election in which Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the vote that has always elected America's presidents — the electoral vote. The other was the 1948 election, in which Gov. Tom Dewey was widely expected to defeat President Harry Truman — and then failed to do so.

But there were precedents for those elections, even if one had to go back a ways to find them. The 2016 election was decidedly not politics as usual — which, by definition, has no precedent.

Consider this: Hillary Clinton spent most of the 2016 campaign arguing that Donald Trump was unfit for office — but he won, anyway. Clinton in particular and Democrats in general have been quick to blame this on misogyny and, implausibly, racism, but that misses the greater point. I know many people who voted for Trump (before that some of them even voted for Obama twice), and I have yet to hear any of them say anything that could be interpreted as misogynistic motives behind their votes.

Those voters consistently expressed their concerns about specific issues — the economy and jobs — and they responded to the candidate who addressed those issues. Nothing new about that. Pocketbook issues are at the very core of politics as usual.

The voters knew Trump hadn't been a saint. They knew he had said and done things they didn't like, but they chose him anyway — which is a clear indicator that modern voters are more than willing to consider unconventional candidates to solve heretofore conventional problems. We are in a period of the politics of the unusual, and the 2018 midterms will tell us just how far the pendulum has swung, just how much the voters are willing to overlook in pursuit of a larger goal.

Further complicating the situation is that the economy is humming along. Like him or not, Trump's administration has presided over some of the results the voters wanted. Democrats can argue that the pieces of the recovery puzzle were put in place by the previous administration's policies, but the voters don't tend to think of things in those terms. They remember who was president when unemployment dropped below 4% or GDP exceeded 3%.

In other words, all bets are off for next year — and for 2020 — and for elections as far as the eye can see.

My major in college was journalism. My minor was history. I studied a little political science in college, and I have studied it informally for years, but I have never heard a lecture or read an entry in a textbook that discussed how an unsuccessful candidate for public office who had been expected to win should behave.

Instinct tells me that such a person would foster considerable good will by being gracious and sincere — and mostly silent.

But rather than acknowledge her own failings as a candidate, Clinton and her subordinates have spent the last year casting blame on others, the lion's share of which has been directed at Donald Trump and his alleged collusion with Russians — which, it turns out, was based on manufactured material from a dossier that had been paid for by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

That revelation led to the uncovering of what could well turn out to be a veritable rat's nest of, to say the least, unsavory activity. While the full extent of it may not be known by Election Day next year, the fact that this has been causing some Democratic angst is clear in the fact that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, regarded as one of the leading candidates for the 2020 nomination, criticized the Clinton campaign and the DNC literally within hours of online publication of Donna Brazile's explosive allegations in Politico.

It is important for political observers not to get carried away with the idea that open seats — in which the incumbents, for whatever reason, are not running — represent opportunities for the parties that do not hold them. It is true in some instances, not true in others.

Take, for example, the congressional district in which I live — Texas' Fifth District, which has been represented by Republican Jeb Hensarling since January 2003. Hensarling announced recently that he won't be running for another term next year.

I have already heard some Democrats speak of how this is an opportunity for them to grab a House seat from Texas, especially since Dallas County (where the Fifth District is located) was one of the few counties to support Hillary Clinton a year ago.

I read an article in the New York Times over the weekend that didn't go so far as to say that vacancies meant easy opposition pickups but it strongly implied that the midterms will "reshape" the House.

That may be true in districts where the incumbent barely won the last time, but Hensarling has a long record of winning by wide margins. So, too, do Republican presidential candidates in the Fifth District. I feel safe in predicting that Hensarling's successor will be a Republican. The question is whether the district will choose a constitutional conservative like Hensarling or more of an establishment candidate.

Still, as I say, we're living in the age of politics of the unusual.

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