I’m not much in the habit of reading the RNC’s web page, so I’m glad Josh Marshall gave a heads-up about the special cavalcade of quotes defending Karl Rove that went up on the site today.Each of these quotes has its own special taste of unintended humor, but there are two big howlers running throughout: (1) Senate Democratic criticism of the silly little business about Rove is detracting from all the big, important things the GOP is trying to do for The People; and (2) Democrats are unaccountably and without provocation acting partisan.The “tempest in a teapot” argument, made most explicitly by Orrin Hatch, is certainly interesting. If true, the Rove allegations involve (a) a deputy White House chief of staff, and the president’s acknowledged political guru, with enormous access to classified information; (b) a possible felony violation of federal law; (c) an act compromising our national security, and motivated by personal spite, as part of a larger coverup of information related to the invasion of Iraq; (d) a deliberate leak in an administration where leaking is a far worse sin than, say, gross incompetence in office. This certainly sounds as important to me as the so-called agenda of the Senate Republican leadership, which at present is focused on a semi-filibuster of stem-cell research legislation. But it’s the second claim that’s really mind-blowing: that those bad, partisan Democrats have gone medieval on that poor, respected civil servant Karl Rove. This is just bizarre. Whatever you think of the man, it’s incontrovertible that Rove has devoted his entire political career to a strategy of partisan and ideological polarization. He’s also been deeply and consistently implicated in a long series of truly savage “politics of personal destruction” campaign tactics, and has evinced a sort of giggling adolescent pleasure in those dark arts. The idea of Karl Rove as a victim of partisanship is sort of like the idea of Ken Lay as a victim of corporate malfeasance. He may or may not be guilty of the specific allegations against him in the Plame outing, but give me a break: you have to really go through the looking glass to consider him an innocent lamb among the wolves. Rove is one wolf who dare not don sheep’s clothing.
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.