One of the most predictable habits of today’s Republicans is that when they get caught doing something disreputable, they try very hard to deflect attention by claiming some Democrat has done the same thing.This seems to be what’s underway in Virginia, where there’s a lot of buzz about Ryan Lizza’s recent revelations in The New Republic concerning the boyhood Confeder-o-mania of Sen. George Allen, and its distinct echoes in his record as Governor of the Commonwealth during the 1990s.Before you could say “So’s your old man,” the conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch published a breathless article noting that one of Allen’s Democratic opponents this fall, former Navy Secretary James Webb, spoke at a Confederate Memorial event in Virginia in 1990.I don’t know if Allen’s backers had anything to do with this article, but it hardly required deep oppo research, since the speech in question is displayed on Webb’s own web page.And once you read the speech and think about it for a moment, the differences between Webb’s and Allen’s attachment to the Lost Cause couldn’t be clearer.First and most importantly, Webb is a southerner with actual Confederate Army ancestors. Not so Allen, whose attachment to the Confederacy developed when he was a Golden Boy rich kid with no southern background. (This point about Allen is one I emphasized in a TPMCafe post, as did Jason Zengerle in the New Republic blog).Second of all, there’s the timing of these events. Sure, Allen’s folks will argue that his Confederate infatuation burgeoned into true love back in high school, while Webb’s speech was a mere fifteen-years-and-change ago, when he was a former Cabinet member. But I think that gets it backwards. Webb did his speech long after the civil rights movement had triumphed over Jim Crow and the Confederacy had been consigned its place in the stormy history of the Republic; that, indeed, is a lot of what he talked about. When Allen was speeding around Southern California in his sporty Mustang with the Confederate flag plates, and wearing a Confederate flag pin in his high school yearbook, that symbol, especially outside the South, was synonymous with Jim Crow’s defiant death throes. (And, as a later TNR piece explains, Allen kept this romance up well after he moved to Virginia and entered politics).And finally, there’s the context of Webb’s speech: at a Confederate Memorial event. I personally think this is the most crucial distinction of all. The main southern argument for getting the Battle Flag off state flags and public buildings is not that Confederate symbols should be abolished, but that they should be consigned to history instead of adopted as current ideological totems. This was, indeed, the main argument in the once-progressive Zell Miller’s impassioned if unsuccessful 1993 Georgia State of the State address (disclosure: I was involved pretty heavily in drafting that speech): don’t forget the Confederacy, or the terrible sacrifices of its soldiers and their families, but don’t make the Lost Cause synonymous with the South as a whole, or allow it to be used for invidious racial or ideological purposes. As a Georgian who has long argued with my fellow crackers about the uses and abuses of Confederate symbols, I have read Webb’s speech and personally found it irreproachable.I sort of doubt George Allen was just exhibiting an exotic historical interest in the Confederacy, interchangeable with, say, an enthusiasm for the War of the Roses. No, there’s not much doubt what it meant to be a Yankee Confedero-phile in the late 1960s. The southerner in me always reacts to such phenomena by saying: “You’re touching my stuff, and breaking it.”So I hope nobody really buys the “everybody did it” idea about George Allen’s strange past.
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.