I’ve just returned tonight from a quick weekend trip to Prince Edward Island, a delightfully remote corner of Canada, but all the talk while I was there was of the USA.Like Americans, Canadians have been riveted by the incredible destructive power of Hurricane Katrina, and particularly the predictions that New Orleans might finally be wiped out by catastrophic flooding. (Since New Orleans is my favorite place, I was frantic yesterday and today to get the news, and only after sitting through a long CNN feature about the impact on oil refinery capacity at the Charlottetown airport did it become apparent that massive loss of human life did not occur in the Crescent City, though Biloxi was less fortunate).But the news item that competed with Katrina across much of Canada involved America in a far less sympathetic story. Canadians are absolutely livid about a cavalier rejection by the Bush administration of a NAFTA-sponsored arbitration decision declaring U.S. duties on Canadian softwood lumber illegal under the agreement. In fact, under heavy public pressure, Prime Minister Paul Martin is reportedly thinking about calling a special session of Parliament to take retaliatory measures against U.S. exports.This hasn’t exactly been big news in the States, but Canada is America’s biggest trading partner, and the longstanding U.S.-Canada partnership on trade policy is the linchpin not only of NAFTA, but of hemispheric free trade efforts generally. And the long-simmering dispute over Canadian lumber is now leading a variety of voices north of the border to call for a reconsideration of that partnership, and of NAFTA itself.It didn’t help that Bush’s ambassador in Ottawa, David Wilkins, responded to outrage over the U.S. decision to ignore the lumber ruling by lecturing Canadians to eschew “emotional tirades.” Bush himself, of course, is vastly less popular in Canada than his predecessor, and Wilkins’ comments reinforced every available perception about the administration’s general disdain for the opinions of long-time allies.This incident also shines a bright light on the Bush administration’s generally bumbling and inconsistent stewardship of trade policy, which follows few clear principles other than solicitude for domestic business interests with political clout.In any event, it was fascinating to spend a few days among our neighbors whose love-hate relationship with the U.S. was illustrated by their worries over a hot wind from the south roaring into the Gulf Coast, and their willingness to launch a cold wind from the north towards Washington.
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.