Today Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) announced he would vote to confirm John Roberts as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, dashing expectations that Judiciary Committee Democrats would oppose the confirmation en masse, and lowering expectations of a big vote against Roberts in the full Senate.While I was disappointed by Leahy’s announcement (especially given its timing, which neutralized Harry Reid’s decision to vote otherwise), I didn’t find it terribly surprising. Leahy is Ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. As such, he will be the particular object of a massive Republican propaganda campaign about “Democratic obstruction” when the next, crucial Bush Court nominee is sent up in a couple of weeks. I would guess that Leahy calculated he would be more effective in opposing a Justice Brown or Owens or Jones or Garza if he takes a dive on Roberts. But it’s certainly ironic that Leahy, given his history and voting record, and even his home state, has wound up taking a position “to the right” not only of Harry Reid, but of people like, well, me, not to mention DLC president Bruce Reed, who came out against Roberts in his blog on Slate.Maybe all those bloggers who keep saying the argument among Democrats is not about ideology, but about strategy, tactics and attitude, have a point, though when it comes to John Roberts, maybe not the point they expected. I suspect we will have much more unanimity when Bush makes his next Court appointment, under extreme pressure from the cultural conservatives he’s asked to show faith in John Roberts.On this last point, I was really struck by a recent National Review piece that supplies a devious, jesuitical interpretation of Roberts’ testimony on the constitutional law of abortion. If the author is right, Roberts didn’t simply evade his Senate inquisitors; he threw sand in their eyes. That is certainly what his advocates believe, and need to believe. Given Roberts’ almost certain confirmation, I hope they are wrong, and that their support will someday be viewed as ironic.But it ain’t likely.
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.