Ramesh Ponnuru and Cass Sunstein have conducted an interesting colloquoy over at The New Republic site about the political implications of a hypothetical overturning of Roe v. Wade in the near future. National Review‘s Ponnuru took on the increasingly popular view that returning abortion policy to the legislative branches of the federal and state governments will be a boon to pro-choice progressives and a blow to the GOP. His main argument was that in a post-Roe world, pro-lifers may well be smart enough (and, if Roe is only partially overturned, may be forced) to focus on popular abortion restrictions rather than the kind of frontal assault on abortion rights that could produce a pro-choice backlash. Sunstein responded that losing Roe would give the pro-choice movement the kind of energy and determination that Roe itself has supplied for abortion opponents over the last thirty-three years.Both arguments have merit, but the debate itself makes an important point that should give pause to those progressives who sunnily forecast happy days in a post-Roe America: nobody knows exactly what would happen, but the one thing we do know is that a reversal of Roe would not create some sort of one-time national referendum on basic abortion rights. As Ponnuru suggests (and as I argued last fall in a public discussion with two leading pro-choice-but-anti-Roe experts, Stuart Taylor and Jeffrey Rosen), barring some highly unlikely preemptive action by Congress, the issue would play out in fifty state legislatures over an extended period of time, on a messy and complex landscape. Abortion would become a perennial, 24-7 issue in many states, dominating political discourse in ways that are easy to envision but hard to exactly predict. Perhaps elevating abortion policy to an overrriding national obsession will ultimately create the kind of decisive pro-choice consensus that Sunstein and others so confidently expect. But I wouldn’t bet the farm (or, if I were a woman, my rights) on it, or look with equanimity at the very real possibility that a lame-duck Republican president will soon give the Supreme Court a fifth vote to overturn Roe.
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.