I’ve finally gotten around to reading a book that’s been much-discussed in the blogosphere: Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, an account of the Goldwater campaign of 1964. I’m doing a review of the book for Blueprint magazine (in tandem with Craig Shirley’s recent history of the 1976 Reagan campaign), but wanted to offer a couple of observations that are largely outside the ambit of the review.First of all, Perlstein is a truly gifted writer and historian. I didn’t read the book when it first came out, exercising the kind of literary triage that old folks like me implicitly apply. I know a fair amount about the 1964 campaign, and the roots of the conservative movement; there are many avenues of political history that I’ve never trod at all. So I’m more likely to pick up a book about Martin Van Buren than about Barry Goldwater, and I initially assumed the enthusiasm for Perlstein’s book among Kid Bloggers represented an exposure to an episode of history as alien to them as the 1836 campaign is alien to me.But man, this guy can really write. To cite just one example, he takes an obscure moment of Republican political history, the Fifth Avenue Compact of 1960 in which Nelson Rockefeller imposed his will on GOP presidential candidate Richard Nixon, and turns it into a stunning metaphor for every cultural cleavage in the GOP from Tom Dewey to Tom DeLay. I’d pay full list price for the book just to read that brief section.The second thing that surprised me about Before the Storm is that Perlstein does not make the argument that his book has often been used to advance: that the Goldwater campaign, and the conservative movement it brought to visible prominence, is some sort of template for the contemporary Left.Certainly Perlstein is a Man of the Left; he is a contributor to The Nation. Moreover, in the book’s Preface, he fully embraces the Nation-esque view that most recent political history, in the Democratic as well as the Republican Party, represents the triumph of the conservative movement. Obviously, the book was published in 2001, well before the Dean/Netroots insurgency that is now beginning to style itself after the conservative movement. But I’m sure Perlstein understands the seductive power of the Goldwater analogy for Deaniac activists who must struggle with the electoral rejection of their flawed-but-inspiring candidate, who, like Moses, has shown the way to a Promised Land he can never enter.Maybe Perlstein has written about this analogy somewhere, or may write about it in the future, but one of his book’s virtues is that he does not generally impose any revisionist view on the story he tells so well. You get the sense as he writes that he’s still absorbing the story himself, and expects the reader to do likewise. That’s the last of many reasons why I recommend Before the Storm to anybody interested in American politics or history.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
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.