A few days ago, I discussed how, when she was in the House, Kyrsten Sinema tried switching districts from a swing seat, to a heavily Democratic-- and heavily Latino-- safe seat that came open in downtown Phoenix when Ed Pastor retired. Progressives loudly and furiously drove her off and she stayed in her old seat, giving progressive state legislator Ruben Gallego the opportunity to run and win. The bitterness turned her into a progressive-hating psychopath who is likely to officially join the Republican Party very soon. But she was always out of her mind and always all about Kyrsten and never about anyone else-- much like Trump.
Lloyd Doggett isn't like Sinema-- neither venal nor mentally ill-- but he is a careerist who looks out for Lloyd first and foremost. I would guess that most members of Congress are like that. Most... like 70-80%, maybe more. But now that Texas Republicans have created a packed district in the middle of Austin, that is super-safe, Doggett wants to abandon his safe but less safe district-- though not safe from a primary challenger-- and run in the super-blue district. Doggett's basically a garden variety Democrat who doesn't embrace the values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Hack political careerists, aren't values oriented. Their concerns are for their own careers, not their constituents.
Doggett isn't a terrible reactionary Blue Dog like Sinema. He's a run-of-the-mill Democrat with a lifetime grade of "B" from ProgressivePunch. Not bad, not good... not someone who should be representing a heavily Democratic district. And, in committee-- in his case, House Ways and Means-- he doesn't stand up for working class families. Today, The Atlantic published an essay by Ron Brownstein, Is A Democratic Wipeoit Inevitable?, that never mentions Doggett and doesn't even allude to him. Undergirding Brownstein's premise, however, are the problems we have with careerists like Doggett, who put their careers ahead of their constituents and ahead of their country.
"It's common now," wrote Brownstein, "for Democrats to argue that the agenda they are struggling to implement on Capitol Hill represents the party’s most ambitious since the 'Great Society' Congress convened in 1965. That’s a reasonable assessment-- but one that the party today should consider as much a warning as an inspiration. Under the relentless prodding of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate passed landmark legislation at a dizzying pace during that legendary 1965–66 legislative session." I was a college freshman, president of my class and paying very close attention. I lived it and Brownstein is correct.
"Over those two years," he continued, "the 89th Congress, finally completing a crusade started by Harry Truman almost two decades earlier, created the massive federal health-care programs of Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. It put a capstone on the civil-rights revolution by approving the Voting Rights Act. It created the first large-scale system of federal aid to elementary and secondary schools and launched the Head Start program. It approved breakthrough legislation to combat pollution in the air and water. It created new Cabinet departments, a new agency to regulate automobile safety, and national endowments to fund the arts and humanities. It transformed the face of America with sweeping immigration legislation that finally undid the restrictive quotas that had virtually eliminated new arrivals since the early 1920s. 'It was one of the most productive and impressive Congresses that we’ve had,' says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University and the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now, a book about Johnson’s push for his Great Society agenda. 'Today, it’s unimaginable.' Then, suddenly, when the work of the 89th Congress was finally finished, Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate during the midterm election of 1966. The Democrats’ bitter disappointment is a cautionary tale for their party descendants hoping to materially improve their odds in next year’s midterm contest by reaching agreement on the sweeping economic bills that have divided the party for months."
Uh... hold up there, sir. Aside from a sluggish economy, the biggest issue of that race was the war against Vietnam-- "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys have you killed today?" Not Vietnamese boys, American boys... my peers. Democrats lost a net of 47 seats, even while gaining 7 seats in pro-war districts in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Mississippi and Texas! In the Senate liberal Republican Charles Percy won, primarily because his daughter was murdered in the middle of the campaign. In Oregon, liberal Republican Governor Mark Hatfield, a loudly anti-war candidate, won an open seat when Democrat Maurine Neuberger retired and a strongly pro-war Democrat, Robert Duncan ran. The third Democratic loss was in Tennessee, also an open seat when Gov. Frank Clement beat incumbent Ross Bass. He lost the general election to rising star Howard Baker, mostly because of a sales tax increase while he was governor.
Brownstein's analysis asserts that "The lesson of history is that it is extremely difficult for presidents to translate legislative success in their first year into political success in the midterm elections of their second year. Those early achievements can boost presidents in their reelection bids, but in almost all cases they have not proved an antidote to the other midterm factors that cause the president’s party to lose ground in Congress. Failing to pass their agenda could compound the Democrats’ problems by disillusioning their base and sending a message of dysfunction to swing voters. But completing the agenda isn’t likely to save them from the president’s party’s usual midterm losses unless voters also grow more optimistic about contemporary conditions in the country-- particularly the fight against COVID-19 and the economic instability flowing from the persistent pandemic."
Why hasn’t legislative success in year one produced more political success in year two? Sometimes the answer is that legislative victories for one party provoke an intense backlash from voters in the other. “It stimulates your opponents, and it could very well cost you because a lot of people don’t like what you do,” Zelizer says.
That certainly seemed the case in 2010, when the backlash to the ACA helped ignite the conservative Tea Party movement that powered the GOP gains; and in 1994, when a backlash from gun owners helped doom Democrats in southern and rural seats; and in 2018, when many more voters opposed than approved of Trump’s tax cut, according to surveys. (The failed GOP attempt to repeal Obama’s health-care law in Trump’s first year was also unpopular.) But presidents have suffered midterm losses even after advancing popular ideas: A majority of Americans, for instance, supported Reagan’s 1981 tax cut, and lopsided majorities backed the creation of Medicare in 1965, polls at the time showed.
A more common problem is that whether or not new programs are popular in theory, in practice, their benefits are rarely fully felt by voters as soon as the first midterm. (That dynamic was a particular problem for Democrats with the Affordable Care Act in 2010.) Another common issue is that no matter how popular a new program might be, opponents can usually pull out one element of it that strikes many voters as illogical or wasteful. A prime example of homing in on a seeming weak link was evident in 1994, when Republicans highlighted a “midnight basketball” program for young people to portray Clinton’s crime bill-- which many liberals viewed as too punitive because it showered money on police and prisons-- as permissive and wasteful.
“Democrats point to polls and say everybody wants these bills, but as soon as it passes, Republicans dig up midnight basketball and run on those sorts of things,” the Republican pollster Glen Bolger says. “And I know that this may shock you, but there is usually waste in these bills-- and stupid stuff, too.”
The clearest modern exception to this pattern of first-year legislative gains and second-year electoral losses occurred in 1934, when Democrats gained nine House seats after the Democratic Congress frenetically approved the initial iteration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Republicans also gained eight House seats in 2002, after President George W. Bush passed his tax-cut and education-reform bills over the previous two years.
Those might be the exceptions, though, that illuminate a larger rule. Few in either party believe that the GOP gained in 2002 because of Bush’s legislation; what lifted Republicans was the public sense that he had responded effectively to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Even in 1934, though the Depression still exacted a terrible price, unemployment was lower and economic growth much higher than they had been when FDR took office.
No single cause explains all of these results, positive and negative, for the president’s party. But from these cases, the clearest rule might be that midterm elections turn less on assessments of legislation that may eventually affect people’s lives than on verdicts about the country’s condition in the here and now. Medicare and Medicaid didn’t cause the Democratic losses in 1966, but they weren’t enough to overcome discontent over inflation, urban turmoil after the Watts Riots of 1965, and Vietnam. Reagan’s tax cuts didn’t trigger the GOP losses in 1982, but they weren’t enough to overcome discontent over high interest rates and double-digit unemployment. An old political adage holds that presidential elections are always about the future; midterms seem to be more about today. As Bolger put it to me, voters “step outside and feel how the weather is, and if I feel uncomfortable with it, I take it out on the incumbent party.”
Maybe the most remarkable proof that current conditions outweigh legislative achievements in midterm elections is a data point that the Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz calculated for me from the University of Michigan’s National Election Studies covering the 1964 and 1966 elections. According to Abramowitz’s analysis of the results, those surveys found that even after Democrats created Medicare, the party’s share of the vote among seniors in House elections fell slightly from 1964 to ’66, giving the GOP a slight majority among them.
...The biggest midterm losses have typically come after elections (like those in 1912, 1964, and 2008) in which the majority party secured significant gains-- forcing it to defend seats deep in the other party’s territory. House Democrats already surrendered in 2020 many of the most Republican-leaning seats they had captured two years before. “You always have to view midterms in the context of what happened in the previous presidential election,” Abramowitz said.
Still, the pattern of first-term midterm losses for the president’s party is so entrenched that escaping it will be difficult for Democrats—even with fewer inherently vulnerable House incumbents, and even if Biden can notch more headway against the virus. And yet that gloomy prospect, paradoxically, might help the party break the congressional stalemate over its economic plan. Bolger noted that the near certainty of a disappointing midterm-- whether a president achieves much legislatively or not, and whether that agenda is popular or not-- should serve as a source of liberation for the party controlling Washington. “The counterargument is you might as well pass the stuff you want anyway,” he said. “Because the odds are, in the first midterm, if you are the party in power, you are going to pay a price no matter what you do.”
I was never a fan of Republican Charlie when he was Attorney General of Florida (a homophobic closet case) nor when he was governor, nor when he was a Senate candidate-- nor when he switched to an independent, and certainly not when he, the ultimate opportunist and addicted careerist, switched to become a Blue Dog Democrat to run for, and win, a House seat in St Pete. He's now abandoning that House seat to run for governor. But as much as I don't like him, I recognize he's a smart politician. "As part of his platform focused on equality for Floridians of color, Charlie Crist announced Thursday that he would legalize marijuana and expunge criminal records for those arrested on misdemeanors or third-degree felonies related to the drug if he were elected governor next year." Where does something like that fit into Brownstein's predictions? How about Trump's toxic psychosis?
It was once eases pie for voters to know who to blame this disparity on. But thanks to "centrist" Democrats-- from Bill and Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, to senators like Joe Lieberman, Claire McCaskill, Joe Biden, Blanche Lincoln, Heidi Heitkamp, Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, Max Baucus Kent Conrad, as well as current conservative Democrats Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin, Dianne Feinstein, Tom Carper-- the Democratic brand is in shreds and in the mud. Low info voters-- for good reason-- don't know who's to blame! And don't get me started on a House where garbage, corrupt conservatives like Josh Gottheimer, Henry Cuellar, Lou Correa, Ed Case, Jim Costa... are crawling around on all fours-- signs on their back that say "will sell voters for cash"-- looking for lobbyists to blow.