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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Revolutionary Skepticism

I am flattered that Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics devoted a long column to a point-by-point response to my recent piece on all the predictions that 2010 is shaping up into a reprise of the 1994 “Republican Revolution.” I won’t conduct a point-by-point response to his response, because in many important respects, that misses the whole point I was trying to make.
The meme I was trying to refute was the idea that Democrats are doomed to disaster in 2010 because Barack Obama has “overreached” his barely-existing mandate by trying to implement his campaign platform, inviting a massive rebuke from the electorate that will confirm the country’s enduring “center-right” political character, and retroactively confim that the 2006 and 2008 Democratic victories were an ephemeral response to the incompetence (or according to some Republicans, liberalism) of George W. Bush and his congressional allies. I won’t attribute that pattern of thinking to Sean Trende, but it’s unquestionably at the heart of much of the GOP confidence about 2010, much more so than any close analysis of the PVI of specific House districts.
Given my motives, I should not, in retrospect, have succumbed to the temptation of making my own predictions, suggesting that House losses for Democrats might well come it at about ten. The truth is that I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2010, and nor does anyone else (as Trende admits). And that’s in part because I have no real clue what will happen to the U.S. and global economies between now and then–which, as Trende notes, I didn’t discuss in my own piece–or, of equal importance, the extent to which the Democratic Party will be blamed for bad economic conditions that palpably began during the Bush administration, driven largely by forces closely aligned with the GOP.
But that observation leads to a disconnect between 1994 and 2010 which I did mention, and Trende did not comment on: the exceptional weakness of the Republican Party right now. In 1994, Democrats were the eternal party of the congressional status quo. Anyone seriously desiring “change” in Congress had to seriously hope for a Republican victory, if only to shake things up. Voters today have a very recent experience with GOP rule at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and it’s doubtful that the corruption, extremism and partisanship of the Republican Party at the height of the Bush-DeLay era will be forgotten very soon. That’s why the declining popularity of the Democratic Party this year has largely translated into dealignment, not realignment. And while you can make a credible case that an energized Republican base will dominate a low-turnout election in which the “dealigned” refuse to participate, it’s by no means certain or even probable at this point.
“Wave” elections, much less “revolutions,” depend heavily on these sort of national dynamics. District-by-district analysis of likely outcomes don’t produce “revolutionary” expectations, which is why most of the serious number-crunchers, from David Wasserman to Michael Barone, aren’t predicting a 1994-type result.
There is one specific point Trende makes that I want to talk about: his argument that the relatively high number of Democratic House members in districts with a pro-Republican PVI means that the “ideological sorting out” of the two parties in the 1980s and 1990s, which I cited as a big and nonrecurring factor in the 1994 results, was temporarily “reversed” in 2006 and 2008 by “pro-life, pro-gun” Democrats beating “corrupt or incompetent” Republican incumbents. These Democrats, argues Trende, are now ripe targets for the GOP.
Keep in mind that PVI measures the presidential performance of each party as compared to national percentages. So of the 66 Democratic House members in districts with a pro-Republican PVI, a significantly lower number, 49, are in districts actually won by John McCain (as compared to 34 Republicans representing districts carried by Barack Obama).
While the comparable 1994 numbers were in the same ballpark, they were in fact higher (79 Democratic incumbents in districts with a pro-Republican PVI, and 52 in districts carried by Bush 41, a number that is probably misleadingly low because of Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy). That matters when you are talking about major losses and “revolutions.” But the bigger factor, particularly in the South, in 1994 was the combination of open seats via retirement and redistricting (Trende dismisses the former factor because it’s too early to know if today’s tiny number of Democratic retirements won’t rise, and doesn’t mention the latter). And the “ideological sorting-out” I discussed refers to the irrefutable fact that 1994 marked the end of a decades-long situation where entrenched conservative Democratic incumbents benefitted from habitual ticket-splitting. That era is long gone, which is why I say that today’s Democrats in pro-Republican PVI districts seem to have gained some advantage that their 1994 predecessors (or at least those who didn’t retire or get gerrymandered out of office) didn’t have.
Consider a perpetually targeted southern Democrat, Jim Marshall of Georgia. Marshall’s district carries a pro-Republican PVI of +10, yet he won with 57% of the vote in 2008, and back in 2004, when there was no pro-Democratic “wave,” won with 63% of the vote (as Bush 43 carried the district with 58%) against a celebrated and lavishly financed Republican opponent making his second race against Marshall. Is he an exceptionally large bet to lose in 2010? I don’t think so. At this point, the Cook Political Report does not list his race as competitive. That could change, but then again, so could everything else that analysts are pointiing to as indicating a big Republican year.
One final point: Trende suggests that my notes on the invulnerability of the Senate Democratic majority is “knocking down a straw man,” since no one is specifically predicting a Republican takeover. That’s true, but that’s also why the 1994 analogies need to be tempered considerably. It was the top-to-bottom landslide nature of the 1994 results that made them constitute a “revolution,” however short-lived. Whatever happens in 2010, it’s not likely to constitute a “revolution,” and all the partisan and ideological freight carried by that term–the “center-right nation” meme, the Clinton analogies, and the constant mockery of Obama’s “over-reaching”–should be put back on the agitprop shelf where it belongs.

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