Some readers may recall I had a genial if pointed exchange in the cyber-pages of Salon last November with University of Maryland professor Tom Schaller about his hypothesis, broadcast in his recent book Whistling Past Dixie, that Democrats need to not only write off the South, but maybe spit at it now and then.I’ve now engaged in another exchange at Salon in response to a Schaller post spitting at Harold Ford as the soon-to-be chairman of the DLC. This is a less genial exchange, insofar as I think Schaller is abandoning the rigorous empiricism of his case against Dixie, and indulging himself in a predictable, audience-pleasing, paint-by-the-numbers assault on the DLC. You’d think a guy who’s obsessively worried about Democrats playing into implicit southern racism might be impressed by an organization like the DLC choosing an African-American chairman; but no–Schaller comes pretty close to implying that Harold Ford himself is some sort of reincarnation of the Dixiecrats. And then there’s his whole weird thing about Bill Clinton as the reincarnation of Grover Cleveland…. well, check it out yourself.I have to say at this point that I am exceptionally weary about the amount of time I seem to be spending online defending the DLC, and defending the Clinton tradition in Democratic politics. I don’t think the DLC has any sort of monopoly on political wisdom, and I also understand the misgivings many sincere progressives have about Clinton and his legacy. But so long as people keep attacking the DLC and Clinton for things they did not do, do not say, and don’t stand for today, while wilfully ignoring what they did, what they say, and what they stand for today, then I guess I’ll keep on keeping on, at the expense of whatever little bit I can contribute to a common progressive debate. I’m loyal and stubborn that way. I hope you are too.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
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.