Back in July, I predicted that the Democrats would take control of the House and gain five Senate seats. At the time, this prediction seemed pessimistic; today it just about reflects the conventional wisdom and many Republicans would probably settle for retaining control, however slight, of one chamber. As John noted earlier today, the poll results at Real Clear Politics are a “sea of blue.”
Why is that? To quote Malachi “Buck” Mulligan, it seems history is to blame. As far as I can tell, it is virtually unheard of for a president to go 4-0. To accomplish this, a president must be elected twice in a row and his party must avoid defeat in both off-year congressional elections. I don’t know whether Andrew Jackson did it, but I don’t believe it’s been done since. Even 3-0 is rare. If a president is fortunate enough to be re-elected, odds are that the voters will punish him (and his party) in an off-year election.
The question then becomes, is the Bush presidency likely to be an exception — is it one that voters will decline to punish? The president’s poll number show that, to the contrary, voters seem quite prepared to punish President Bush. Why? Because, I imagine, he started a war, a major stated purpose of which was to eliminate WMD that were never found, and we are still embroiled in that conflict with no successful end clearly in sight. There are good arguments in defense of the war (both the decision to start it and the decision to see it through), but they no longer resonate with a majority of voters. I think this is unfair, but that hardly matters. I’m sure President Clinton’s supporters thought it unfair for the Dems to lose the House and Senate in 1994 over Clinton’s health care proposal.
So the question becomes, has this Congress earned sufficient good will that voters will buck the historical pattern and overlook their low regard for the president? The question more or less answers itself. While the Republican Congress has passed some worthwhile legislation, it has not endeared itself to voters, either through its fiscal responsibility or its integrity. Ordinarily, the flaws of this Congress would not be hanging offenses (the Dems survived worse for years). But in a year when voters need a reason not “to throw the rascals out,” flaws are magnified.
The other reason not to throw the rascals out, of course, is that doing so would bring worse rascals to power. But my theory is that, in an off-year election involving a party that has held power for a considerable period, the face of the in-power party is a combination of the national party and its local candidate; whereas the face of the out-of-power party is overwhelmingly the face of the local candidate. In most key Senate races, the Dems are presenting passable candidates, and even where they are not (e.g., New Jersey) the candidate seems to be at least holding his or her own.
This is not to say that all is lost. It is not written anywhere that the Republicans will lose more than 15 House and more than five Senate seats. The electorate’s punishment may, in the end, be less severe than that. My original prediction was, at best, an educated guess. But at this point, I’m not revising it in favor of the Republicans.
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