Saturday, September 11, 2010

On the Consequences of the Midterm Elections

First of all, the debate among political pundits as to the severity of impending Democratic losses in the upcoming midterm elections - i.e. whether they will lose control of the House and the Senate, only the House, or wind up retaining slight majorities in both legislative bodies - is essentially besides the point. Given the ferocious partisanship of the post-Reagan conservative coalition which dominates the Republican Party today, the reality is that any significant inroads from the GOP will stymie Obama's agenda and lead to vicious political warfare, with all of the trumped up investigations and exploitation of ideological hot buttons that comes with it.

Assuming Republicans victories of some magnitude are inevitable this November - and that appears to be the case, based on polls and the outcomes from 2009's major elections - the developments that will naturally follow are not as bleak as liberals are currently inclined to believe. Indeed, as counterintuitive as such a notion may seem, significant losses in the midterm elections may actually help Barack Obama's political fortunes.

There are two main reasons for this, both of them perceptual:
i. A lackluster political base is often fired up when they perceive their enemies unfairly and/or viciously attacking one of their own.
ii. Losing control of Congress to the adversarial party allows a president to shift perceived responsibility for the nation's problems to his opponents.

To understand each point, one need only look back to the experiences of two previous Democratic presidents during their respective first terms:

i. During the first two years of Bill Clinton's tenure, his support waned as he struggled with issues ranging from free trade agreements and budget balancing proposals to health care reform legislation and gay rights initiatives. This caused him to not only (predictably) incur the wrath of right-wingers who claimed he was excessively liberal, but also to lose support from his own base, which felt increasingly annoyed at what they saw as excessive concessions to the center-right in Clinton's policies. After the Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, though, the president's fortunes changed; while it was already clear that nothing would ever win him support from the Republican Party (which had been controlled by intractably hostile zealots since the Reagan Revolution of 1980), his popularity rebounded as a result of the sheer malice and brutality of the campaign launched against him by conservatives, causing his base to rush instinctively to his defense and independents to gradually become disgusted with Republican hyperpartisanship. By the time the election of 1996 arrived, Democrats had transferred their resentment of right-wing rabidness into staunch support for Clinton, independents had become further disgusted with the behavior of the GOP in Congress, and Republicans themselves - aware of this trend among independent voters - had frantically backpedaled, nominating a more moderate right-winger (Bob Dole) over alternatives more ideologically pleasing to their own base (Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes) in the hope that doing so would help them win back independents. All of this was to no avail, however, and Clinton was comfortably re-elected.

ii. Harry Truman's popularity also plummeted during his first term. Like Clinton and Obama after him, Truman was weakened not only by a staunch conservative opposition, but by a Democratic base that was dissatisfied with what they believed was a pattern of ineffectiveness and ideological compromise from the president. Exacerbating these problems were a host of issues in which Truman's performance was widely deemed wanting, from criticisms of his strength in opposing Communist aggression (at home as well as abroad) to his inability to combat a persistent economic recession. Although many of these problems were still in full force when Truman finally sought another term, the Republican takeover of Congress in the midterm elections of 1946 allowed him to shift blame for many of these issues to Congress, which he accused of being radical in its agenda and obstructionist in its tactics. As a result, despite the assumption from political experts that the Republican presidential candidate (Thomas Dewey, who like Bob Dole a half-century later was chosen as a moderate who could win over independents) was heading toward a landslide victory, Truman managed to pull off an upset win in the election of 1948.

Thus if you extrapolate the lessons from the first terms of the Truman and Clinton presidencies to the present, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a Republican victory in the 2010 midterm elections could work to President Obama's advantage. Indeed, early signs that this would happen are already evident. Right-wing excess in opposing Obama is clearly comparable to the levels that were used against Bill Clinton (the unwavering opposition of Republicans in Congress, outrageous charges that Obama is a Muslim, a non-native citizen, a socialist), and as a result liberals are already reflexively rallying to the aid of their assailed leader even as they express frustration with his inadequacies. Likewise, despite the ongoing recession, Obama's approval rating is still much higher (low-to-mid 40s) than that of other presidents who were bogged down with similar economic woes (Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, the first term of Ronald Reagan), due in no small part to the fact that Americans blame Republican obstructionism just as much as they do Obama's ineptitude. In short, it's easy to foresee a Republican windfall in 2010 resulting in the invigoration of Obama's base, the winning over of disgusted independents, and the transference of perceived accountability for America's problems from Obama to his political opponents.

One question remains: How will this effect the 2012 presidential election?

If history serves as any guide, the passionate grassroots support for right-wing ideologues like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee will probably give way among primary voters to a pragmatic desire to select the most electable candidate. As I wrote in a blog post four weeks ago, that probably means the Republicans will:
...nominate Mitt Romney as a candidate whose business resume makes him the ideal opponent to a Democratic incumbent dealing with a weak economy (incidentally, his pro-business policies will also help him create a formidable fundraising apparatus to propel his candidacy, an invaluable asset in any successful presidential campaign). Helping his cause will be the fact that independent voters, who will no doubt be turned off by the radicalism of the Tea Party movement and further dismayed with what I expect to be the rabid political bloodlust of congressional Republicans..., will perceive Romney as an ideological moderate and advocate of political stability, thus making him far more attractive in a general election contest...

Note from September 18, 2010: There is also the possibility that the growing influence of radical right-wingers (especially the Tea Party) within the Republican Party will lead to the nomination of Sarah Palin. I address this possibility here:

History offers conflicting precedents as to the eventual outcome of an Obama-Romney contest. Although one can look at Truman-Dewey in '48 and Clinton-Dole in '96, there are less auspicious counterexamples, like the campaigns waged by Herbert Hoover in 1932 and George H. W. Bush in 1992; both of them were defeated in their re-election bids because the economy was too horrendous to be outweighed by anything else in the minds of the voters. Just as it is possible that Obama could parlay Republican and right-wing missteps into a 2012 victory, it is also feasible that Romney could win because the recession will be too severe for any other factor to politically cancel it out. In such a scenario, Romney's political palatability, thanks to the attractiveness his business background will offer in dire economic times and his own image as a moderate conservative, would make him electable for the simple reason that he would be a reasonably inoffensive alternative to the unpopular Obama (much as Franklin Roosevelt was to Hoover and Bill Clinton was to Bush).

So which one will it be? To some extent that would depend on how Romney conducts his campaign. Obviously he would need to pick a running mate who compensated for his political weaknesses - i.e. someone with experience in the federal government, trusted by his party's right-wing ideological base (although not to such an extent as to turn off independent voters), acceptable to the Christian Right, and if possible, hailing from a swing state (and definitely a state outside of the northeast). More than any of these things, though, his running mate would have to be someone who didn't harm Romney's ticket in any way, much as Eagleton did to McGovern in 1972 or Palin did to McCain thirty-six years later. Individuals like Richard Burr of North Carolina (Senator and, in my opinion, the most likely choice), Sam Brownback of Kansas (Senator and future governor),
Fred Thompson of Tennessee (former Senator), and Jeb Bush of Florida (former governor with a plethora of connections to the federal government) come to mind, although Brownback may be too closely associated with the Christian right for independents. Even Newt Gingrich has also been bandied about as a possibility, although his sketchy personal life and negative image among independents would probably make him a detriment to the Romney campaign.

Beyond that, the chances are that the election would hinge on a multitude of intangible factors: Will Romney be able to avoid making gaffes on the campaign trail that could diminish his political brand and enhance Obama by comparison? Will Obama be able to reinvigorate the energized movement that got him elected in 2008?
How heavily will the economy weigh on voters' minds compared to other issues? Since the election will probably hinge on Obama's performance, will the emphasis be placed on his perceived failures or on the difficulties he has had with an obstructionist Congress?

Ultimately the jury remains out on whether Obama will become a Truman/Clinton or a Hoover/Bush in 2012. While I would like to end this article on a more conclusive note than that one, it is perhaps appropriate that a piece dealing with political forecasts should end with uncertainty.

Addendum - Romney's Religion:
I have heard from several sources that Romney's Mormonism might work to the detriment of his candidacy. My suspicion is that this would not be happen: liberals swayed by anti-Mormon prejudices would already be Obama supporters anyway; conservatives who succumb to anti-Mormon hatred (including the Christian Right) would be unlikely to abandon Romney and thus risk a second Obama term; bigotry against Mormons among independents and other swing voters would be probably be outweighed by their concerns over other issues; and (not to put too fine a point on it) the chances are that many of the same people who might vote against a Mormon under normal circumstances will probably be have a greater aversion to Obama's race than to Romney's faith.

That said, I think it tragic that prejudice against a candidate's religion could ever be a factor in a presidential election, even a minor one; just as John McCain admirably paid homage to the barriers being broken by Obama's nomination during his convention address in 2008, I hope Obama will do the same thing for Mitt Romney in 2012. On a darker note, I think the Secret Service should also provide Romney with the kind of extensive early protection that they correctly offered to Obama during his campaign in 2008.

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