Looking back at my holiday posts, I realize I did nothing but whine for two weeks (Eeyore was, after all, a donkey). So enough of that. Like many of you, no doubt, I caught up a bit on my reading, and also got a few new books for Christmas. By far the most enjoyable holiday read was an advance copy of Michael Kazin’s new biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero. I’ve written an extensive review of the book for The Washington Monthly‘s next issue. But suffice it to say that I recommend it highly, especially to those self-styled populists of the Left and Right who claim parts of Bryan’s heritage while ignoring aspects of the Commoner’s thinking that don’t fit into their own ideologies. Like a lot of sports junkies, I asked for and received the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia under the Christmas tree. And I suspect a lot of said junkies shared my reaction to the tome: it’s fun at first, but gets boring pretty fast. Sure, it’s a handy reference book for resolving arguments, but who really wants to sit around reading box scores of every bowl game in history; statistical summaries of every season; or team schedules from time immemorial? The essays that begin and end the book are pretty sketchy, and the individual team histories generally read like they were written by Sports Information Directors for the schools involved. Probably the most interesting general tidbit is the section in each team history about how they acquired their nicknames and mascots. In other words, it’s a fine book to keep in the W.C. I always get at least one theological book for Christmas, and this year’s selection was Kevin Irwin’s May 2005 offering, Models of the Eucharist. It’s a useful if somewhat frustrating study: useful because Irwin exhaustively examines the truth underlying a variety of historical and contemporary understandings of the central ritual of (non-evangelical) Christianity; frustrating because the book’s design as an official Roman Catholic textbook gives it a didactic tone that undercuts its scope of inquiry. Still, if you’re interested in this topic, Irwin’s book belongs on the same shelf with Dom Gregory Dix’s seminal The Shape of the Liturgy, and the playful post-Vatican II classic, Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing.In an earlier post I lifted a quote from another book I finished reading over the holidays: Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. Duffy manages to pull off a credible and readable history of two thousand years of papal development in just 317 pages, and is particularly good on the tangled legacy of the Renaissance Popes and the internal Church tensions that produced the First Vatican Council and the doctrine of papal infallibility. Given his unhappiness with the authoritarian strain of Pope John Paul II’s reign (the book was published in 1997), you have to wonder if Duffy will produce a revised edition assessing the significance of Joseph Ratzinger’s election as Benedict XVI. (Disclosure: I’m a big fan of Duffy’s work on the Tudor Reformation, especially The Stripping of the Altars. And one of my favorite memories was the opportunity I had a couple of years ago to sit next to Duffy at High Table at Cambridge’s Magdalen College, while I was there to participate in a panel discussion of neoconservatism). The last book I undertook as 2005 waned was a golden oldie which I retrieved from a dusty bookshelf at home: Gore Vidal’s 1973 novel, Burr.Anyone who just thinks of Vidal as a cranky conspiracy theorist, a media hound, or the purveyor of tawdry novels like Myra Breckinridge, should definitely read Burr and its equally delightful sequel, 1876. These books stand alone as historical fiction of the highest order.
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.