With a very weird stretch of time marked by the Schiavo saga, the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II, and even a Royal Wedding, it’s a good time to take stock of where things are politically.Things are not looking good for George W. Bush and his party. His approval ratings have sagged after leaping after the Iraqi elections. The famously disciplined GOP is divided over a whole host of matters, with the famously pampered conservative base as unhappy as it’s been in a long time.Bush’s main domestic initiative, his Social Security privatization push, has gone nowhere, after months of presidential hype. Senate Republicans seem to be waivering in their long-threatened determination to ram through Bush’s judicial nominations by outlawing filibusters. House Republicans are now indelibly identified with their Leader, Tom DeLay, who’s working hard to achieve Gingrich-level pariah status, even aside from his ethics recidivism and his growing enmeshment in the Abramaoff-Indian-Casino-Shakedown scandal. House and Senate Republicans are at odds on a whole variety of substantive and political issues, including the budget, which may never get resolved this year despite growing public worries about ever-escalating public debts. The economy is chugging along in low gear, but not much so you’d notice. What people are noticing is a continuing health care cost spiral, which the GOPers haven’t a single clue how to confront, and now a gasoline price spiral, which Bush energy policies would make worse.International affairs remain a relative bright spot for Bush, but now the post-election euphoria on Iraq has turned into another tense period of uncertainty, and the recent presidential commission report on the whole Iraq WMD issue has poured a few more gallons of cold water on the administration’s international credibility. Promising developments are still underway in Palestine and especially in Lebanon, but in neither arena is a dramatic pro-democracy, pro-peace breakthrough as likely as it appeared a few weeks ago.It probably won’t help Bush internationally that his next scheduled act is a high-profile confirmation fight over a proposed ambassador to the U.N. whose public record contains a string of obnoxious unilateralist comments as long as your arm. And to top it all off, his most important foreign ally, Tony Blair, is in a tough election fight; if Labour loses or simply loses a lot of ground, it will be almost entirely attributable to W.If you add it up, the president and his party appear to be in a whole heap o’ trouble, with no obvious relief in sight.This doesn’t necessarily translate itself into political gains for Democrats (more about that in near-future posts), but we can pretty much forget about the idea that Bush and company are off to a roaring second-term start.
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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.