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.
Despite our apparent collective wisdom, most individuals believe what they believe, to hell with logic and facts. A new poll has found that 36 percent of Americans think it’s “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that federal officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks. About the same percentage—Different people? Who knows?—believe that Saddam “was personally involved in the September 11th attacks.” Which is also the same fraction of Americans who think the expedition in Iraq is currently going “well”—a number that, remarkably, hasn’t really moved during the past two dispiriting years.
On Iraq, minds don’t change easily even among the sane and intellectually nimble. The Times’ Tom Friedman was in favor of the invasion and occupation—until last month, when he finally decided that “we can’t throw more good lives after good lives.” He now wants the U.S. to announce a withdrawal timetable and do its best to assemble an international peace conference and peacekeeping force that includes—lots of luck—Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria; in other words, as a practical matter, he wants to pull out. He has recalculated the costs and benefits, and changed his mind.
Americans whose opinions actually do morph along with the facts, of course, still hold the balance of political power. And they can be distinctly, consistently glimpsed in poll after poll. Today’s pivotal chunk is that 10 percent of the electorate who voted for Bush but now count themselves among those unhappy with him—presumably the same 10 percent who told the NPR pollsters that they “somewhat disapprove” of the president’s performance.
And they are surely the same interesting group, more or less, who’ve changed their minds these past four years about which political party is the more trustworthy guardian of our national security. According to an amazing meta-study of polling data by The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, between 8 and 17 percent of Americans have shifted their default trust from Republicans to Democrats concerning all the strong-daddy issues—terrorism, Iraq, national defense, foreign policy. This is the sensible, disgusted, reality-based cohort that might just rebuke the GOP by evaporating its House majority on November 7.
In the post-9/11 era, neo-McGovernism is not the way that Democrats will return to governing.
A lot can happen between now and then, of course. It’s hurricane season. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il might do something nutty and provocative. Just because we’ve made it five years without any successful jihadist attack on American soil doesn’t mean (knock wood) we’ll get to five years and two months. The mere revelation of the transatlantic plane-bombing plot apparently slowed down the anti-Republican political momentum. Osama bin Laden could be captured or killed, although that particular October surprise, I think, would be surprisingly ineffective: When the Reaganites got Hezbollah to release an American hostage in Lebanon just before the 1986 elections, it was a big deal—but the Republicans still lost the Senate.
Let’s assume that control of the House is indeed about to turn over. And let’s also assume that Iraq is a lost cause. The resurgent Democrats will thus be at a crossroads. They can decide that their election victory and the failure in Iraq are a vindication of the party’s peace-at-any-price tendencies, tacitly revel in our military failure, embrace Vietnam syndrome redux. The other path is a tougher one in every sense: It entails complicated and necessarily murky navigations on Iraq like those of senators Clinton and Biden (and, yes, even unlikable Joe Lieberman), and a recognition that the most damnable thing about the war has been the swaggering incompetence of its prosecution.
The party, in other words, can be born again resembling either its sweet, soft, post-Vietnam iteration or its muscular, John Kennedy–esque version. It can build on the national-security cred it’s now acquiring as a result of the Bush administration’s bungling and its highest-profile leaders’ relative hawkishness, or it can scare away the middle-of-the-roaders all over again. If Connecticut’s Ned Lamont becomes the great signal victor of this election, it’ll make people on the left feel good, but those happy days won’t last. We were thrilled about George McGovern’s nomination in 1972, too, and we’ve been paying for that moment of righteous satisfaction ever since. In the post-9/11 era, neo-McGovernism is not the way that Democrats will return to governing.