Monday, June 19, 2006

Midterm elections and alternative visions

Every time I hear complaints about the Republican Congress and the conversation turns to the midterm elections coming up this fall inevitably there is a comment to the effect, “the Democrats are disorganized” or “the Democrats don’t stand for anything.” While there are certainly elements of truth to both of those statements I think they also betray a lack of understanding of how our system of governance works and the advantages to the party holding the White House.

The party that controls the White House can speak with one voice if the leadership is exerted. Minus the White House, the congressional wing of the party has difficulty coming together on most issues to present broad visions distinguishing it from the other party. There is an elected leadership in congress but we are not a parliamentary system in which the executive and legislative are merged. Party discipline in the sense of parliamentary systems just does not exist in our government which separates powers. (Personally, I would prefer a parliamentary system both for the clarity of its politics but also for its flexibility and responsiveness to the public.)

So does it make a difference that Democrats are not offering a clear-cut alternative program in upcoming congressional elections this midterm? Probably not. Presidential elections are when voters are given a choice of programs and vision but midterm congressional elections generally reflect whether or not the public is happy with the party in power.

Joshua Marshall at Talking Points Memo put it this way today:
Political insiders consistently overstate the importance of slogans and
programs. Political tides aren't unleashed or weathered because of message
discipline or thematic fine-tuning. They come about because of failures or
victories abroad, big motions in the economy, or judgments coalescing in the
public mind in ways that are as inscrutable in their origins as they can be
transparent in their effects.

1994 is a classic example. The Contract with America is now judged
a seminal political act whereas in fact, I would say, it had little if anything
to do with the result of that watershed election. 1994 happened because Bill
Clinton was very unpopular two years into his first term. A new wave of
right-wing politics -- bound up with but not limited to talk radio -- had been
building steam since the beginning of the Bush years. Clinton's unpopularity
both stemmed from that wave and helped crystallize it. Add to these factors the
fact that redistricting, a wave of retirements and unified Democratic control in
Washington for the first time in a generation all made the South ripe for
finally flipping over into the hands of the Republican party at the
Congressional level.

Let's be honest. What is this election about?

It's not about the Democrats. 2008 may be about the Democrats.
Maybe 2010. Not 2006. 2006 is about George W. Bush and the Republican party.
And, specifically, how many people are fed up with what's happened over the last
six years and want to make a change? The constitution gives the people only one
way to do that in 2006 -- put a hard brake on the president's power by turning
one or both houses of Congress over to the opposition party.

And Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia cites exceptional presidential poll ratings (either unusually low or high), foreign war (popular or unpopular), sour economy, major scandal, and intense hot-button social or domestic issues as the factors most likely to impact on mid-term elections.

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