The McArdle prophecy

In a post dated July 12, 2013, Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle looked ahead to the elections of 2016. She foresaw a high likelihood of Republicans controlling the White House, the Senate and the House. Over at the New Republic Nate Cohn disputed McArdle’s reasoning. McArdle posted this at the site promoting her book The Up Side of Down. Among other things, McArdle followed this up with the 2015 column “Hillary Clinton isn’t inevitable.”. Having come across this yesterday, I thought it made interesting reading in retrospect:

My assertion that there’s a 70% chance the that the GOP controls White House, Senate, and House in 2017 has attracted a lot of pushback. And it’s certainly possible that I’m wrong! Here’s my thinking, for what it’s worth:

Since the Civil War, only two Democratic presidents have been succeeded by another Democrat. Both of them–FDR and JFK–accomplished this by dying in office.

Since World War II, only four presidents have been succeeded by a member of their party. As I mentioned above, two of them accomplished this by dying in office. One of them accomplished this by resigning in disgrace ahead of his own impeachment. Only one of them, Ronald Reagan, left office at the end of his appointed term and was succeeded by a duly elected member of his own party. Mostly, the White House flips back and forth like a metronome.

At the beginning of Obama’s term, people were talking about the kind of Democratic dominance that FDR enjoyed. Didn’t happen. Isn’t going to. So I think the GOP goes into the race with a big edge on the White House. Voters just get tired after eight years.

For example, when I pointed out how few presidents have been succeeded by members of their own party, you may have been tempted to argue that Al Gore “really” won. I’m not going to have that argument right now, but even assuming you’re correct, what does that tell you? That after the greatest economic boom in decades, the Democratic vice president fought hard to a statistical tie with the Republican governor of Texas. Sure, he wasn’t the most charismatic candidate either, but neither was George Bush. Getting a third term in the White House just seems to be really difficult. And Barack Obama is not going to finish with a ground-shaking economic boom.

Add to that the Democratic bench. Hillary Clinton is a formidable politician, but she will be nearly 70 years old in 2016. No one else except Biden (who is older than she) has anything like the national name recognition that multiple people on the GOP bench enjoy. But if one or both of those two decide to run (and I think it’s nearly certain that they will), they’ll probably get the nomination just because they will suck all the oxygen away from the other candidates–both the money and the publicity will follow them. And though they’re both formidable challengers, I think their age is going to hurt them. I think it would have hurt Reagan if he’d been running against more formidable opponents, but Carter was badly damaged, and Walter Mondale was a nice man who made a very good Senate candidate in Minnesota.

Democrats who think they’re a shoo-in seem to be unaccountably banking on the GOP nominating some tongue-tied wingnut who will spend the campaign discussing the scientific evidence that women can’t get pregnant from rape. But as Joe Scarborough argued in 2012, this is wishful thinking . . . in his words, “The GOP doesn’t nominate crazy”. In 2012, out of an incredibly weak field filled with tongue-tied wingnuts, they nominated the moderate with the best public policy chops and solid debating skills. In 2016, they will have a much more attractive bevy of candidates from which to choose someone electable.

So I think that the chances that the GOP takes the White House are probably pretty high–maybe around 75%. This is not a Nate-Silver-style I-ran-9,000-regressions-and-here’s-what-I-got. It’s just my gut estimate of the odds. When Nate starts running his projections, I will revise accordingly.

Now, if the GOP takes the White House, I think the chances that they also take the House approach 100%. They have a big structural advantage here, and the president will pull a bunch of Republicans in on his coattails. As far as I can tell, everyone agrees with this, so I won’t belabor it.

The Senate is the biggest wildcard. 2016 is going to be a bit of a challenge for the GOP, since they’ll be defending the wave class of 2010. But some of those folks generally cited as liabilities, like Pat Toomey, actually seem to be doing okay. (In large part because they’ve tacked left on key issues, which should be a lesson to the Tea Party about the limits of primary challenges. But that’s a blog post for another day.) They’ll be helped by the fact that the president will have coattails in the Senate as well.

Moreover, the 2014 election, as I understand it, actually looks pretty good for the GOP–Democrats are defending a lot more vulnerable seats than Republicans, and the president’s party tends to suffer during midterms. If the GOP can get to 48 or 49 seats, I think it’s quite likely that they’ll get to 50 in 2016.

Note that I don’t think they’ll establish permanent control; I think the odds are for a fragile majority of 50 or 51 seats, which they’re vulnerable to losing if anyone dies or resigns. If they do get control, I expect they’ll lose it in 2018 midterms . . . which is why I suspect they might not “go nuclear.”

Anyway, that’s my reasoning. Entirely provisional, and I’m open to corrections. But that’s why I wouldn’t get rid of the filibuster if I were Harry Reid. Even if you think the chances that you lose the Senate and the White House are 50% it’s not a good gamble. For that matter, even if you keep the Senate and lose the White House, it’s not a good bet. Eventually you’ll lose the Senate, because control of that august institution seems to be pretty unstable. And in the meantime, since you don’t have the White House, you can’t actually do much with your new, filibuster-less power.

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