First ‘pre-mortem’ of midterms
American voters, almost invariably dissatisfied with the political status quo, generally endorse change. In 2016, Donald Trump was certainly the candidate of change, and Hillary Clinton, seeking a third consecutive Democratic term in the White House, represented continuity. Voters’ enthusiasm for change, in the abstract, often cools when they’re actually confronted with the specific changes that the winning change candidate seeks to impose once in office.
Recall the smashing and historic 2008 victory of the classic change agent, Democrat Barack Obama, who, as president and with his party in control of both the House and the Senate, pushed hard — and eventually successfully — to enact national health care, which his party had long championed but which had never been realistic as long as Republicans controlled at least one side of Capitol Hill. During the 2010 midterm elections, voters, unsure about the economy and the actual changes wrought, gave President Obama only a 44 percent favorable job rating and took 63 House seats — and the majority — away from the Democrats.
Presidents whose party controls both the House and the Senate have been regularly humbled by midterm election voters. In his first midterm, Democrat Bill Clinton, with a 46 percent favorable job rating after having failed to pass his health care plan and enacting a deficit reduction law that raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans, lost 54 House seats and the House and Senate majorities his party had held for 40 consecutive years. The re-elected President George W. Bush, having been forced to abandon his limited Social Security privatization plan and with voters questioning his competency, watched as his Republican Party lost 55 House seats cumulatively in 2006 and ’08, when his job rating fell to 25 percent positive.
Even the vaunted Gipper, Ronald Reagan, who carried 44 states and 49 states in back-to-back presidential landslides, was burdened in his first midterm. With a 13.6 percent unemployment rate, a 42 percent favorable job rating and voters’ anxiety about changes he championed, Republicans lost 26 House seats, which the minority party could ill afford.
All of which brings us to Virginia in 2017, which was President Donald Trump’s first taste of a midterm election of sorts. Virginia is no longer a hotbed of social rest where residents suffering from terminal nostalgia speak about Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison as though they were out on a coffee break and expected back shortly. Virginia, like the nation, has changed. Echoing the nationalist-nativist rhetoric of Trump, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, a heretofore establishment Washington Republican, managed to deliver 80 percent of the one-third of the Virginia electorate that is Latino, Asian or African-American to his Democratic opponent, who carried Virginia by a margin more than two times larger than President Obama’s 2012 margin.
Having, by overt hostility, alienated Virginia’s minority voters, the GOP nominee needed to win 67 percent of the white vote to prevail; he came up 10 points short.
The early returns of 2018 can already be seen in the flurry of retirement announcements from Republican House members. In its day-to-day operation, the U.S. House is relentlessly undemocratic. The majority party runs everything, including all the committees, the schedule of what bills ever see the light of day and all the rules.
Being in the House minority is not fun. The retirement of GOP House members indicates their widespread, mostly whispered, belief that in next November’s midterms, when Trump’s favorable job rating will almost certainly be closer to Bush’s low point than either Obama’s or Clinton’s, Republicans will take a pasting and the Democrats will win back the House majority they lost to the tea party-energized GOP in 2010.
History gives us this preview.
Editor’s note: To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.