In a special election yesterday, Colorado voters approved an initiative relaxing the requirements of TABOR (short for “Tax Payers’ Bill of Rights”), a robo-system of fiscal restraints imposed by an earlier ballot initiative.Over at TPMCafe, I’ve already posted an analysis of the greater meaning of this partial rollback of TABOR, which represents an important rollback of the national conservative effort to force states into a fiscal straightjacket protecting high-income and corporate tax breaks at the expense of public investments.But I’d like to add a personal note.]A few years ago I went to Denver to speak at a Democratic legislative retreat, and thanks to TABOR, it was like travelling to a foreign country.Everyone there carried around little books detailing TABOR provisions. Every policy discussion began and ended with extensive comments about “TABOR compliance.” TABOR had clearly accomplished the main goal of its Washington advocates: radically constraining state legislative powers and priorities, not just in terms of overall spending and revenue figures, but in terms of the basic ability to conduct long-term planning and make long-term investments.In a very real sense, TABOR made the very bright state of Colorado “stupid country,” and its advocates hoped to spread the gospel of fiscal idiocy elsewhere.So yesterday’s vote, whatever else it meant, represented one proud state’s declaration of independence from a scheme that made legislative policymaking impossible, and made the normal process of budgeting irrelevant. And TABOR’s defeated proponents got one more important warning that limiting government without making open and rational choices about what government should do is ultimately a self-destructive and ant-democratic exercise.Hats off to Colorado voters, and for those who worked for the passage of this new initiative. Reforming government is one thing; getting smarter and more effective government for the lowest possible tax levels is always a good idea.But arbitrarily and mindlessly promoting arbitrary and automatic spending cuts, with no real attention to setting priorities for what taxpayers should support, is what TABOR was about. And changing that situation is critical all across the country for Democrats, and democracy.
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.