I’m doing this post because my old friend Armando at TalkLeft has cited me twice in the past week for opposing partisanship, “contrast,” and “fighting” as elements of a Democratic political strategy, once quoting, slightly (but not unfairly) out of context, something I said back in 2005.His latest post selectively quotes from an analysis I did the other day of the Democratic presidential field, noting in passing that Gore and Kerry lacked an overarching message, but had plenty of policy proposals and lots of Shrumian “fighting” rhetoric. This somehow translates, in Armando’s view, into me saying that I said Gore and Kerry’s candidacies lost because they “fought” or were too partisan. Not true. All I said is that both candidacies (and yes, I understand that Gore won the popular vote and Kerry clame close) would have benefitted from a consistent, overarching message that complemented their vast policy agendas and their “fighting” spirit. No, I do not think wanting to “fight” Republicans represents a sufficient message for any Democrat; but that doesn’t mean I’m opposed, then or now, to a strong contrast in campaign messages, so long as there is a message other than “I oppose the bad guys.” As it happens, I was as unhappy as anybody with the weird, poll-driven reluctance of the Kerry campaign during the 2004 convention to attack the opposition; I was in the convention speechwriting operation, and chafed against the High Command’s edict that speeches barely mention Bush and rarely mention the GOP. As Armando suggests, the Kerry campaign got out of that mindset later in the campaign, and I’m glad they did. As for the “politics of contrast,” which Armando has repeatedly used me as a foil to promote, yes, of course, absolutely, if you don’t explain to voters why you’re different from the opposition, you can’t expect to win many elections. But just as obviously, there are legitimate questions about where to draw contrasts, and how much contrast is necessary. If contrast is the only thing that matters, then Democrats should just distance themselves as far from Republicans as possible, regardless of public opinion, principles, actual consequences, or common sense, and I doubt Armando or anyone else really thinks that makes any sense. He has his point of view about how far Democrats need to go to “contrast” themselves with the GOP on Iraq, but that point of view, however passionately and articulately advanced, is just a debating point between people who agree on the basics, not a self-evident position held by anyone who wants “contrast.” So don’t count me among the (largely imaginary) ranks of Democrats who never want to be partisan, don’t want to draw contrasts, and don’t want to fight. I continue to think we need a broader message that appeals to people who aren’t reflexively ideological or partisan, and I reject the idea that Bill Clinton (for example), wasn’t acting as a partisan politician when he talked about “progress not partisanship” in 1996 and 1998. Partisanship, contrast and “fighting” do need to be connected to a broader national agenda and a rationale for Democratic candidacies that transcends these tactics, and that’s all I’ve tried to say.
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.