Former Congressman Harold Ford became chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council last week. It didn’t get much attention, other than from the Stonewall Democrats, who want to know if the DLC still opposes a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (short answer: yes) even though Ford voted for it (short explanation: the DLC is not a monolith). It’s probably a good sign that nobody much was surprised when an African-American takes over an organization once stereotyped as the homeland of Southern White Good Ol’ Boys. One well-known progressive blogger, Digby of Hullabaloo, checked out Ford’s appearance on CNN and proclaimed herself pleasantly surprised.There were a couple of notably weird drive-bys about the DLC that didn’t have much to do with Harold Ford. Markos of DailyKos strings together a bunch of quotes about the fighting spirit of freshman Dems and decides that means they are “refusing to follow” the “out-Republican-the-Republicans” “playbook” of the DLC. All of this is simply delusional, but maybe it reflects Markos’ apparent decision to upgrade his diagnosis of the DLC’s condition from “dead” to “dying.” And then at MyDD, Matt Stoller did a long, long post on various aspects of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, none of which have much of anything to do with the DLC (though Matt does seem to be laboring under the extremely mistaken impression that the DLC designed the 1993 Clinton Health Plan), and then titles the whole rambling thing “Hillary Clinton’s DLC Problem.”I’m no longer an officer, a spokesman, or even a full-time employee, at the DLC, but this crap still drives me crazy. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for people to disagree with or dislike the organization or what it allegedly stands for, without just making stuff up or implicitly buying into the loony idea that the DLC is some sort of Bavarian Illuminati that secretly controls the world through its vast [sic!] piles of money and its occult influence in the punditocracy.
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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.