Like many of you, no doubt, I’ve been following the wide-ranging debate about the domestic political implications of the British terrorist bust of last week. It has come as no surprise, of course, that Republicans and their conservative allies have seized on the foiled plot to claim, for the thousandth time, that it shows how important it is to have a party focused on national security in charge in Washington, even if the consequences of its Iraq policies are looking more disastrous every single day. (The GOP’s comcomitant campaign on the theme that Joe Lieberman’s loss in Connecticut proves there’s only one party committed to fighting terrorism, absurd as it is, is Part B of its longstanding implicit argument that however much Bush is screwing up, he’s screwing up with the right intentions). But I do wonder if the revelation of an advanced plot to replicate 9/11 on a large scale isn’t going to unravel the whole line of “reasoning” that has reinforced the persistant gap between public feelings about Bush’s performance in Iraq, and the GOP’s general reliability on national security. We’re all familiar with the “flypaper” theory, so often articulated by Bush himself, that whatever else is going on in Iraq, the insurgency there is drawing jihadist attention and resources away from attacks on the U.S. (“We can fight them here or we can fight them there,” as Bush routinely says). And I personally think this factually crazy contention has been far more important to Bush and the GOP than most of us would like to accept. Back during the last presidential campaign, I became convinced, mainly through conversations with undecided voters back home in Georgia who would up voting for Bush’s re-election, that the most powerful thing the incumbent had going for him was a rough and unsophisticated argument that went like this: Some Arabs came here and killed a bunch of Americans. George Bush went over to Iraq and killed even more Arabs. Since then there have been no attacks. He must be doing something right.Anything and everything that reminds Americans that the Iraq War has not done a thing to reduce the terrorist threat against the United States will erode that argument, and with it, the GOP’s belief that any and all concerns about national security will benefit it at the ballot box. To the extent that clearly focusing on what they would do to deal with the actual terrorist threat undermines both parts of the Republican argument, while connecting public unhappiness with Iraq with residual concerns about terrorism, Democrats should hammer away on this subject every day. This administration has been a national security disaster. The “flypaper” has worn out, leaving us with a horrific mess in Iraq, an energized and growing jihadist threat, and a country more exposed than ever to terrorism. It’s time for a dramatically new direction.
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.