I totally agree with my colleague The Moose in congratulating Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel for their plain-talk trashing of Hugo Chavez’s latest Bush-bashing incursion into Harlem. This is pretty basic stuff. Yeah, I think Bush has been an unmitigated disaster for our country. Yeah, given the political capital he possessed on September 12, 2001, I think you could make a pretty good case that the debate over Bush’s exact status as one of the worst presidents of the last century is a bit of an insult to the memories of Warren Harding and Richard Nixon. And yeah, I have to remind myself of the dictates of Christian charity in foreswearing hatred of the man and his administration.But still, I do not think Bush’s American detractors need any outside help from the likes of Hugo Chavez. He is, as Pelosi pungently put it, an “everyday thug.” More generally, he’s a guy who would be universally dismissed as just another self-important ex-military caudillo if he wasn’t sitting on top of oil revenues that keep his regime from ruin, and enable him to strut around Manhattan showering goodies on low-income Americans. He’s pretty much Khadafy without the experience.I find it really odd and reprehensible that Markos took issue with Rangel for upbrading Chavez (missing the point, BTW, that Charlie was objecting to Chavez’s extracurricular appearances in Harlem, not his speech at the UN). But I also probably part company with The Moose in rejecting his particular identification of Harry S. Truman with the idea that partisan differences should generally be subordinated to the national interest.As it happens, I’m now re-reading Richard Norton’s Smith’s political biography of Thomas Dewey, whom Truman famously upset in his signature campaign of 1948. It certainly confirms my often-expressed opinion that George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign had an antecedent in 1948 as an incumbent candidacy based on eschewing the political center and pursuing a deliberate polarization of the electorate.Sure, Truman was pre-positioned in the center to some extent via his abandonment by the anti-Cold War “Progressives” backing Henry Wallace, and the anti-civil rights southerners backing Strom Thurmond. And there’s no question he was a resolute anti-communist, or that his overall record in building a post-war edifice of international institutions was worthy of all the praise that Democratic centrists have so often given him.But within those parameters, Truman ran one of the most polarizing campaigns in U.S. political history, suggesting repeatedly that Dewey was a front not only for the restoration of Herbert Hoover’s domestic and foreign policies, but for an actual American fascist movement determined to abolish democracy and impose an oligarchy of wealth. He ran a very Kos-like campaign, and most of the retrospective Republican commentaries concluded that Dewey (who in part was spooked by the conviction that he lost in 1944 by being too negative towards FDR), erred fatally in campaigning on a “national unity” message.On any issue other than foreign condemnations of an American president, nobody would much accuse Nancy Pelosi or Charles Rangel of insufficient partisan zeal. But that’s another example of the true HST legacy: keep the enemies abroad in mind, but domestically, leave no partisan attack behind. You don’t have to completely endorse this formula to recognize it as a template for what George W. Bush did in 2004, and for what Democrats feel driven to do today.
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.