I must vigorously dissent from the views expressed by my friend The Moose about the president’s NSA domestic surveillance adventure. I’m proud that we can have this kind of useful debate within the big-tent confines of the DLC. And I hope this post won’t be misused and abused to bash my antlered colleague, whose defense of Bush on this one subject is but a small tree in the forest of his condemnations of W.The heart of The Moose’s argument is that freewheeling executive power is essential to the prosecution of the War on Terror, and that those of us–not just Democrats, but many Republicans–who would fence in that power by requiring observance of the rule of law are either mindless of the threat we face from Jihadism, obsessed with civil liberties absolutism, and/or blinded by Bush-hatred to the need for extraordinary national security measures.I plead innocent to all three counts of this indictment, and suggest The Moose is missing three characteristics of the War on Terror that make some limits on executive power not only advisable but essential: (1) this is a protracted, Cold War, that cannot be successfully waged in an atmosphere of permanent emergency; (2) congressional and judicial oversight of executive counter-terrorism activities is the only way we can ensure an effective war on terror; and (3) conspicuous respect for the rule of law is the only way we can sustain domestic support for the war on terror, and the only way we can successfully offer our own institutions and values as an alternative to Jihadism in what is preeminently an ideological battleground.There is one, and only one, exception I would make to these three principles: the possibility of nuclear terrorist acts. As of yet, no one in the administration has claimed the NSA surveillance program was in any way targeted on that possiblity (indeed, it wasn’t targeted at much of anything, best we can tell), and moreover, this administration seems determined to do as little as it can to actually deal with the nuclear terrorist threat, if it requires multilateral action or spending money on things like port security.More generally, the administration has been painfully slow–despite warnings from the 9/11 commission and congressional mandates to get moving–to deal with reforms in how intelligence agencies compare, analyze, and act upon raw intelligence data. U.S. law enforcement agencies had plenty of data on the 9/11 conspirators before they acted; more data swept up by the kind of program Bush later authorized wouldn’t have addressed the inability of the system to understand and act on that data.In addition, any consideration of emergency executive powers has to involve a close look at the alternatives to scofflaw behavior. If FISA was deemed inadequate by the administration, it could have and should have gone to the Congress controlled by its own party in 2003 and asked for amendments, which most Democrats would have supported as well. The habit of demanding unlimited executive power when it’s unnecessary is one of the most unsavory aspects of this administration’s behavior, as illustrated most recently by the president’s statement that he would not feel constrained by the prisoner treatment rules sponsored by Sen. McCain, and duly enacted by Congress.And that, in the end, is probably the heart of my difference of opinion with my friend The Moose. The legal case for the president’s NSA ukase is shabby at best; the editors of The New Republic, hardly wimps when it comes to the War on Terror, demolished it in an editorial last week. You can be hard-core on the War on Terror and still be hard-edged in criticizing the administration’s we’ll-do-what-we-see-fit position, and even those who agree with Bush on this particular subject need to begin with the presumption that his critics have a legitimate and patriotic case to make. (After all, even Joe Lieberman joined the Democratic filibuster against the Republican effort to make the Patriot Act permanent with little debate).The Moose concluded his latest post by proudly calling himself a “Hamiltonian mammal” who favors a strong executive. Well, I’m a Jeffersonian mammal by temperament and tradition, and though both strains of the American political dialogue have much merit, Jeffersonians tend to understand that while Lincoln, TR, and FDR, among others, have vindicated faith in a strong executive, we also have to have a system that deals with presidents like Harding, Nixon and George W. Bush. That means no executive blank checks without balances, especially when those balances are entirely consistent with a robust defense of our country.
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.