The New Republic’s latest issue includes a provocative package of essays on the future of liberalism as part of a 90-year anniversary of that magazine’s founding–an issue that notes the term was basically invented in its American context by TNR itself.It’s all worth reading. E.J. Dionne argues that liberals have erred in conceding religious language and religious constituencies to the GOP, part of the reason the robber barons of the Bush-Rove-DeLay ascendancy have gotten away with casting themselves as moral traditionalists. Martin Peretz offers a dyspeptic and occasionally annoying but fundamentally accurate take on the intellectual emptiness of today’s American Left (bloggers take note: definining yourself by savage partisanship doesn’t really mean “standing up for your principles” unless you articulate them). The always-interesting John Judis suggests that the shifting dynamics of the U.S. and global economies have placed liberals on a permanent defensive when it comes to economic policy.But for my money, the most instructive piece in the package is Jonathan Chait’s analysis of the asymmetrical war being waged by conservatives who have an ideological template for every policy they pursue, regardless of the context, the evidence, or the results; and liberals who are focused on real-life results as the end and are flexible as to the means for getting those results.Chait’s discourse strongly confirms the New Democrat argument that American Progressivism has always involved fixed, result-oriented ends and flexible, experimental means. By that definition, all the great icons of American Liberalism, from Wilson to FDR to JFK, LBJ, and MLK, anticipated less orthodox figures like Carter and Clinton in challenging the idea that every “liberal” program or policy had to be defended as a matter of principle. But Chait also challenges liberals of every variety to understand that their principled willingness to act as members of the “reality-based community” creates a tactical disadvantage in competing with conservatives whose policies are based on ideological certainties that are immune to actual experience or results.And that, I submit, is an important question in today’s debate within the Democratic Party about how to deal with the purely ideological politics of George W. Bush and the Republican Party. Today there’s a strong sentiment, especially in the blogosphere, that we must closely emulate the conservative movement, and become as cynical, as fact-free, and as rigid as the opposition if we want to beat them. For a variety of reasons, including the superior appeal in the “reality-free community” of policies that offer free lunches domestically and a search-and-destroy missions internationally, I think that’s a losing proposition, and an unprincipled position, for Democrats. We need to raise our game and appeal to our best instincts, and the best instincts of the American people.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
After absorbing a lot of Democratic gloom-and-doom about the midterms, I offered some silver lining at New York:
The 2022 midterms don’t look great for Democrats, who will try to buck history by hanging on to super-slim congressional majorities. Thanks to the particular lay of the land, Democrats have a decent chance of maintaining control of the Senate. But the House? Not so much: The two times since the New Deal when the president’s party won net House seats in a midterm (1998 and 2002), the president in question had sky-high job-approval ratings. Even if you believe Joe Biden’s plunge in popularity has been stemmed or even turned around a bit, he’s not going to have 60 percent-plus approval in November 2022 unless really crazy things happen. There’s just too much partisan polarization for that these days.
Thankfully for Democrats, even if they lose their congressional majorities next year, Biden himself won’t be an underdog for reelection in 2024. After all, the last two Democratic presidents were reelected after historically terrible midterms. Democrats lost 54 U.S. House seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010. Yes, they had bigger majorities going into those elections than Democrats have now. But they lost the national House popular vote by an identical 6.8 percent in both midterms, which is pretty bad, particularly since Democrats suffer from a voter-inefficiency problem in House elections (too many voters concentrated in too few districts).
It’s possible for a president’s party to lose a midterm so badly that bouncing back in the next cycle is all but impossible. Consider the man whose unique comeback accomplishment Donald Trump will be emulating if he runs in 2024, Grover Cleveland. The president Cleveland defeated in an 1892 rematch, Benjamin Harrison, was a Republican whose party lost an incredible 93 House seats in the 1890 midterms. This, mind you, was at a time when the House had only 332 members, which means the GOP lost over half their caucus in one cycle (an even worse percentage than in 1894, when Democrats lost a record 125 House seats during the midterm after Cleveland’s comeback triumph). In this era of polarization, nothing like that is going to happen to Democrats in 2022.
Looking more broadly at the power of incumbency, there have been 13 sitting presidents since World War II who were on the general election ballot. Nine of them won. The four losers all faced special circumstances. Gerald Ford had not previously been elected to anything more than the U.S. House; he ascended to the vice-presidency and then the presidency when disgraced predecessors resigned, and he pardoned the president who appointed him, the especially disgraced Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter was caught up in a historical realignment that he had held off four years earlier by carrying his native South, which then resumed a massive Republican trend. George H.W. Bush suffered from a terrible economy but then also a party split (third-party candidate Ross Perot won a lot of previously Republican voters). And we all know about Donald J. Trump, who was impeached twice and seemed determined to offend swing voters.
In retrospect, what’s most remarkable is that Ford and Trump very nearly got reelected despite their handicaps, exhibiting not the weakness but the strength of incumbency. And it’s with that perspective that any early handicapping of a potential 2024 rematch should be considered. Trump benefited from incumbency in 2020, as will Biden in 2024. So the idea that the 45th president has some built-in advantage over the 46th — absent the renewed election coup so many of us fear — doesn’t make a lot of sense.