The Elections: How Bad for Democrats?

Daryl Peveto/Luceo Images
A Tea Party Express rally, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 30, 2010. In Utah, the Republican Tea Party candidate, Mike Lee, is expected to defeat the Democratic candidate, Sam Granato, in the race for US Senate.

How bad are things for the Democrats? It is generally assumed in Washington these days that in the November 2 elections the party will lose control of the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate (although this is less likely). If the Republicans take control of one or both chambers, they and conservative commentators will proclaim that the voters have rejected “socialism” and will begin planting in earnest the idea that Barack Obama will be a one-term president.

The most damaging actual effect of such an outcome, one few people have focused on yet, is that once Republicans gain the chairmanships of House committees, they will begin launching investigation after investigation into the Obama administration, for example on charges that the Justice Department has shown racial favoritism in refusing to prosecute the New Black Panther Party of Philadelphia for alleged electoral irregularities. These will have little or no meaningful basis in fact but will attempt to distract the administration from its policy objectives, make it look dirty, and with any luck catch a big fish on the hook of perjury or obstruction of justice. (Look for the theme of “Chicago-style thuggery,” which was bandied about here and there earlier but never quite caught on outside the right-wing echo chamber, to reemerge.) The Republicans play to win.

How did things get this bad for Obama? The reasons are numerous. The condition of the economy is of course the chief one. If the stimulus had kept unemployment below 8 percent, as Christina Romer, recently departed chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, once promised it would, in one of the least advisable public comments by any Obama administration official so far on any subject, then discontent across the land would not be so great, and the bayings of the furious Tea Party minority would likely not be resonating as they are. By all accounts, top presidential economic advisers like Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers (who will leave office at the end of the year) really did think the economy was going to be in recovery by now. Had they been right, the political prognosis for Democrats would consist of lost seats, but not on nearly the scale predicted today.

Some longtime observers of Congress point to history, and the fact that the president’s party almost always loses seats in midterm elections—since 1862, it has averaged losses in midterm elections of about thirty-two House seats and two Senate seats. Only twice since the Civil War—in 1934, during the Depression, and in 2002, following the September 11 attacks—has the president’s party gained seats two years after he took office. Other experts argue that the…

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