An Election Breakwater?

The electorate's dyspeptic mood about the nation's politics reflects the fact that, as is frequently the case, the party in power in Washington has done much to earn a rebuke but the opposition party has done nothing to earn a reward. Herewith a tour of the political horizon nine months before the November elections, and 33 months before the first presidential election since 1952 without an incumbent president or vice president running--and just the second in 28 years without a Bush on the ballot.

Democrats are hoping that an electoral tsunami in November will wash away the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. But Democrats have been complicit in building what may be a breakwater--Republican consultant Bill McInturff's term--that protects the hold that Republicans secured in 1994 after 40 years in the minority. And if Democrats do win a majority, they may regret it.

The breakwater has three components--gerrymandering, campaign-finance "reforms" and the particular form of profligacy known as earmarks. In state after state, redistricting after the 2000 Census proved that bipartisanship--ritually praised, rarely practiced--is often overrated. Democrats and Republicans collaborated in drawing congressional districts that would protect incumbents of both parties. Campaign-finance "reforms," which make raising money more difficult, are written by incumbents and work to the advantage of... well, take a wild guess. Here is a hint: In the last two election cycles, 98 percent of incumbents seeking re-election won. The explosive and utterly bipartisan growth of earmarks--federal spending directed by individual legislators to specific projects--is yet another advantage incumbents have as they toil to get rid of that offensive 2 percent.

Until then, they will have to be comforted by the fact that in 2004, just 21 incumbents (out of 435) won with 55 percent or less of the vote. In 2000 the number was 40. In 2004, 325 incumbents received 60 percent or more of the vote, and 146 received 70 percent or more.

But 2004 was the first time since 1866 that Republicans increased their House majority in two consecutive elections. They are unlikely to achieve a third increase this year. So, suppose the breakwater is overwhelmed and Democrats win control of the House.

Who then will control the Democrats' crazies? Give those guys committee gavels, and they will be as manic about investigating the Bush administration as Republicans were about investigating the Clinton administration. (Do you remember Whitewater? Can you say anything about what was at issue?) Furthermore, there might be a noisy and not negligible cohort pushing for impeachment of President Bush for such high crimes and misdemeanors as the premise of the war with Iraq and the presence of Dick Cheney. Short-term memory loss being a bipartisan affliction, Democrats probably would not remember that the public was so annoyed by Republican attempts to impeach Bill Clinton for his glandular excesses, Democrats actually gained House seats in the first post-Monica election.

For Democrats to gain, say, 20 seats, they would almost have to run the table of the at most 35 seats currently considered competitive. And if they do, they will have a five-seat majority, the smallest for either party since 1952. That will make it difficult to accomplish anything, so control of the House will only make Democrats look impotent--and complicit in whatever is displeasing people about Washington in 2008.

Presidential popularity, or lack there-of, tends to color an election year. Since 1962, when the president's job approval has been between 50 and 59 percent, the presidential party has lost an average of 12 seats in off-year elections; when his approval has been below 50 percent, the average loss has been 43 seats. President Bush's job approval is at a historic low for a sixth-year president not named Nixon, but this may not matter in November, and not just because of the breakwater. Voters can be very nimble at compartmentalizing their feelings about presidents and their feelings about lesser politicians. For example, in 1956, 1972 and 1984 Republican presidents won re-election landslides--yet Democrats gained one, two and two Senate seats, respectively.

Bush had a smaller electoral-vote margin than any re-elected president since 1916 (Woodrow Wilson), and every president re-elected since Wilson had a winning margin in the popular vote at least three times as large as Bush's in 2004 (2.5 percentage points). National politics seems frozen: All but three states (Iowa, New Hampshire and New Mexico) voted in 2004 the way they did in 2000. Nevertheless, 153 counties that had voted for Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000 voted in 2004 for Bush, who increased his margin in 24 of the 30 states he won in 2000 and reduced the Democratic margin of victory in 13 of the 20 states he lost in 2000. This trend will continue until, like every trend, it stops.