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Happyish Days Are Here Again

Democrats are gleeful about their November prospects, but they should be wary of winning the battle at the cost of the war.

Illustration by Darrow  

Since the seventies, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan aside, I’m not sure if any candidate for federal office has ever received my fully enthusiastic vote. I didn’t really vote for Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Chuck Schumer in 1998 and John Kerry in 2004 as much as I voted against Ronald Reagan and Al D’Amato and George W. Bush. I am a Rick Santorum–loathing but left-wing-allergic Democrat-by-default, a kind of South Park Liberal.

So my delight over the Democrats’ rosy November prospects is not because I long for Nancy Pelosi (oy) to become the flibbertigibbet, subpoena-wielding Speaker of the House but rather because I have a ferocious wish to see the Bush administration get a beatdown from voters across the country, punished for its inexcusable recklessness and demagoguery. The consistent three-to-two opinion-poll disapproval of the president these past six months has been nice, but that is so much theoretical gab. Only a national election can make the disenchantment and anger real and potent.

And make no mistake, these midterms will be, to an exceptional degree, a referendum on this executive-branch regime, rather than 400-odd discrete judgments on the performances of individual members of the House and Senate. Before each of the last four midterm congressional elections, going back to 1990, only one sixth of voters said they were motivated by antipathy for the sitting president—that is, for Bush 41, Clinton, Clinton post-Monica, and Bush 43—whereas this year, twice as many, more than a third of the electorate, say their votes will be a specifically anti-Bush gesture.

Indeed, all the metrics look lousy for Bush’s party. Only a quarter of voters say they approve of the (Republican) Congress, and pretty much only Republicans like the Republican ­Party—compared with the big majorities of Americans who approved of Congress and the party before the most recent midterm elections. General contentment with the direction of the country is close to the historically low levels of the fall of 1994—just before the galvanized opposition party took over both the House and the Senate. And even though the economy is doing fine, it doesn’t feel like it to most people—how beautifully unfair—so Bush and the Republicans seem to be getting little or no credit on that count either.

Of course, lousy polling numbers don’t necessarily make for a turnover. The Republican majority in the Senate will probably move from 55-45 closer to 50-50, but it’s highly unlikely that the Republicans will lose control there. And in the House, only several dozen races are considered competitive (compared with 100 seats up for grabs in 1994). Still, according to a recent NPR poll of voters in just those districts, 45 percent “strongly disapprove” of the president, versus a mere 24 percent who “strongly approve.” The game comes down to Election Day turnout—a function of war weariness and Bush disgust among independents and Democrats and, maybe more important, the extent of ordinary Republicans’ ambivalence and disengagement. The GOP will fight ferociously, of course, exploiting stupid fears (of gays, of flag burners) and more reasonable ones (of jihadists, of “cutting and running” in Iraq), and might still eke out a House majority. But right now, the experts’ bottom-line prediction is a shift of fifteen to twenty seats, just barely enough to give control to the Democrats. However, slim still rules when it comes to running the joint, as Tom DeLay’s extremely slender but brutally effective Republican majorities have proved for more than a decade.

Speaking of which: Never before in history has the partisan division of the more democratic wing of Congress been so close to a tie for so long. Which can be seen as yet another symptom of our debilitating national polarization … or, as I prefer to think, a hopeful measure of the lack of wholehearted faith in either party these days. It’s the same reason no candidate has gotten 51 percent of the vote in the last four presidential elections, the result of the electorate’s reasonable decision—in a dialectical, emergent, wisdom-of-crowds sense—to try to keep both Republicans and Democrats on a short leash.

A somewhat squishy idea, I realize, but consider the yin-yang political cycles of the past ­quarter-century. In 1980, America elected a right-wing Republican ­president—and then over the next six congressional elections, even as it reelected Reagan in a landslide, maintained and strengthened the (liberal) Democrats’ large majority in the House … until 1994—that is, right after the Democrats had recaptured the White House, when the electorate decided it wanted a Republican legislature to balance things out. It’s as if there’s a collective unconscious American grokking that the country tends to be in better shape when one party doesn’t control both the White House and Congress: After all, during the two-party periods, we shook off seventies malaise, won the Cold War, enjoyed an extraordinary economic boom, and restored fiscal discipline to the federal government. Our one-party eras gave us McCarthyism, Vietnam, and now Iraq. The electorate, in its wisdom, seems about to push us back into an era of divided government.