It’s obvious that the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq was a big factor in the Democratic midterm victory (though surprisingly, the national exit polls placed Iraq fourth in the ranks of “most important issues,” after corruption, the war on terrorism, and the economy). And in the wake of the victory, I can’t blame the most avid antiwar Democrats for crowing about the steady trend of public opinion in the direction of a rejection of the war as a bad idea from the beginning.But given the likely long-range prominence of national security in American politics, and the persistent doubts of many voters about Democratic credibility on national security (which mattered a lot in 2004, and might have mattered this year if Bush and company had not discredited themselves so thoroughly), it’s important for Democrats to be clear-eyed about the challenges they face. That’s why I was troubled by a TPMCafe post by the usually excellent Greg Sargent the other day that suggested the intra-party divide on national security was between those who (correctly) wanted to be loud and proud in attacking the administration on every front, and those who (incorrectly) wanted to stay silent and fight out the election on domestic issues. Greg’s right that some Democrats have habitually wanted to ignore national security issues and some habitually have objected (going all the way back to the 1970s), but this is a divide that cuts across the left-right, pro-war anti-war differences of opinion. The apotheosis of the change-the-subject approach was in the last midterm elections, those in 2002, and it was promoted and opposed by Democrats on both sides of the decision to invade Iraq (the DLC, to cite one example, ranted against the concede-national-security point of view relentlessly). Indeed, this was a debate that never ended within the Kerry general election campaign in 2004.Within the now-triumphant don’t-ignore-national-security camp among Democrats, a secondary argument has been, as Greg briefly discusses, whether to attack the Bush administration and the GOP for its incompetence on Iraq, or for its basic decision to go after Saddam Hussein. I strongly suspect a lot of voters would consider this a theoretical and backward-looking dispute that is irrelevant to the basic judgment that Bush and company lied and bullied their way into a war they didn’t know how to win. And that’s why Democrats were almost certainly smart to frame their party message on Iraq almost exactly that way. Going forward, perhaps the most significant divide among Democrats on national security is between those who view the Iraq war, however it ends, as a distraction from the broader fight against (substitute your favorite terms) jihadist terrorism, and those who think that broader war is a chimera or a mistake as well. The latter camp (which extends over into the GOP “realist” ranks) implicitly agrees with Bush, Cheney and the neocons that you can’t separate Iraq from the U.S. reaction to 9/11; the failure of the former indicates a basic misconception of the latter. I don’t think this represents anything like a majority of antiwar Democrats, but it’s a debate that needs to be flushed out in the open, and resolved before 2008.
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.