In case you missed it, the ever-so-lame-duck session of the Republican-controlled Congress is about to ride out of town after dumping roughly a half-trillion dollars in appropriations decisions on their Democratic successors. To put it another way, having once again failed to pass appropriations bills during the regular session (often because of internal GOP wrangling), they got another bite at the apple and decided to make these decisions a toxic little Christmas present for Democratic legislators. And as Kevin Drum at Political Animal notes, it’s clear this is a deliberate tear-up-the-tracks gesture for Republican solons still petulantly angry about their loss of power.After suggesting, accurately, that this ultimate abandonment of responsbility isn’t getting much attention, Kevin also reminds us of the big media furor that surrounded alleged (and ultimately unsubstantiated and/or small potatoes) “sabotage” by outgoing Clinton White House staff back in 2001. Yeah, I’d say deliberately leaving the federal government in fiscal limbo, and in a continuing budget crisis, is a bit more egregious than removing the “W” key from a couple of White House computers. But this stroll down memory lane did get some old synapses firing, and I suddenly remembered an example of real intraoffice sabotage.Many years ago, I met a guy who had been the first landing craft to hit the State Capitol on Inaugural Day in a southern state where one party was supplanting another in the governorship, after an especially bitter campaign. First off, he discovered the locks had been changed in the Governor’s Office. So he had to track down a building supervisor to let him in. Then he found that the light bulbs had all been removed from the overhead lights and lamps. So he had to deal with that. The phones were totally screwed up; he couldn’t get a dial tone. And when he tried to boot up a computer, it became apparent the operating systems had been deleted.Now that’s sabotage, friends. But it was nothing more than a minor nuisance compared to the current batch of bitter congressional Republicans, who want to make sure the fruits of their long reign of fiscal irresponsibility create a ripe, rotting smell around the Capitol when Democrats take over in January.It would have been far, far better if the GOPers had screwed up the phones and computers after doing their jobs and deciding how to fund the federal government.
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.