Today’s papers are full of campaign-style coverage of the conclave now solemnly assembled to elect the next Pope. But aside from quotes from a handful of American Cardinals who are in this faction or that (or more importantly, who will speak to American reporters), you’d think the United States and its 60 million or so Roman Catholics are pretty much irrelevant to the whole thing. Apostate Europe is important; so too are those inhabiting the endangered Catholic turf of Latin America and the promising battleground of Africa. But not America.This treatment of the papal election is, to put it mildly, in sharp contrast to the U.S. coverage of John Paul II’s legacy in earlier weeks, which insistently focused on the Vatican’s relative indifference to the clerical abuse scandal that has roiled the American Church. And it leads one to think that U.S.-based media are finally tumbling to the truth that We Just Don’t Matter in terms of the immediate future direction of the Catholic Church.That’s why I recommend that those of you interested in that future direction read an impressive piece by Notre Dame church historian John T. McGreevy, just up on The New Republic’s site. His argument, basically, is that to the extent the Vatican pursues or even intensifies John Paul II’s battle against worldwide trends inescapably identified with the U.S.–secularist individualism, capitalist globalization, and a hedonistic popular culture–it must come to grips with what Catholics in the belly of this particular beast should do.I’ve already published my own view that the Catholic Church has decisively cast its lot with the global South (a view that’s beginning to creep into coverage of the papal election), but McGreevy advances the argument to another level. If the universal Church is becoming fundamentally anti-American (despite its tactical alliance with U.S. conservatives on abortion, gay marriage, and Terri Schiavo), are American Catholics doomed to a choice between their own country and culture and Rome? Will U.S. Catholics be pushed into a reverse kulturkampf? And if so, will the flash points be those teachings which discomfit the Left or the Right?This is probably a more fruitful issue to discuss than all the pre-election handicapping about which man will get to wear the Shoes of the Fisherman.
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.