During a recent solitary drive, I did something I hadn’t done in a long, long time: listened to Rush Limbaugh for thirty minutes or so. I was curious to learn if Rush’s recent extracurricular problems, and/or the November election results, had made him a tad humbler.Of course not. The first few minutes of Rush were devoted to redundant and completely idiotic assertions (on the authority of some British journalist, no less) that “liberals” were demanding the presidency for Hillary Clinton as compensation for her endurance of a troubled marriage. (Guess Rush doesn’t read many “liberal” blogs, eh?). But it got a lot worse: Limbaugh then started reading, verbatim, a long blog post by a Selwyn Duke entitled “Soft People, Hard People.” Aside from making Sigmund Freud stir in his grave, Duke basically argues that the “feminization” of American society, and our “weak” and sentimental attachment to things like civil liberties, sexual equality and independent media, doom us to extinction by the “hard people” of the Third World, especially Islamists, who laugh, laugh, laugh at our “soft” refusal to fight fire with fire.This is, of course, an argument about the indefensibility of “civilized” impulses that goes all the way back to Gibbons’ suggestion that Christianity fatally undermined the martial spirit of Rome. More recently, it was an essential element of the fascist contention that bourgeois liberal parliamentary democracy was too weak and “soft” to prevail against Bolshevism.Since Duke, and his publicist Limbaugh, don’t explicitly call for imprisonment of what Duke calls the “enemy inside the gates,” (though he does indulge in the “disease” metaphor for domestic enemies that the Nazis were so fond of, implying as it did a license to exterminate them as an act of biological self-defense), maybe a fairer analogy would be the Cold War argument that civil liberties should not be extended to communists, and that “hard” anti-communist authoritarian regimes beyond our borders deserved our maximum support. Indeed, Dinesh D’Souza recently extended that argument into the post-Cold War era by claiming that Jimmy Carter’s human rights fetish destabilized Reza Pahlavi and led to the Islamic Revolution in Iran and every Middle East calamity since then.Aside from confirming that Rush Limbaugh is as nutty and dangerous as ever, his reading of Duke’s jeremiad provided a timely reminder that there is and always has been a vast and momentous difference in world-view between Left-Center and Right, even among those who thought the Cold War was worth fighting, and among those who now think we are in a war with Jihadism. Some folks on the Left appear to believe there’s really no fundamental difference between Dick Cheney (who clearly thinks only “soft people” care about Abu Ghraib or Gitmo) and, say, Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton, or Peter Beinart or Thomas Friedman (who clearly think the universal values of liberalism are America’s best weapons in any war).If the only thing that matters to you is being right or wrong on the original decision to go into Iraq, or if your litmus test is whether this or that person favors immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, maybe such subtle distinctions as this or that person’s basic orientation on civil liberties, sexual equality, human rights, independent media, or the ultimate meaning of Western Civilization, represent nothing more than a lot of elitist talk. But in the long run, when it comes to electoral choices between the Hard Boys of the Right who think liberal values should be discarded as self-destructive baggage, and the Soft Men and Women of the Center-Left who think they are the essence of any civilization worth fighting for–maybe it will matter a whole lot.
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.