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March 12, 2007

A Democratic Tide?

Oh, it looks bad for the GOP. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, Republicans are despairing: 40 percent of them say they expect the Democrats to win the next election, while just 12 percent of Democrats say the GOP will win.

But Samuel L. Popkin and Henry A. Kim have a bracing historical reminder for Democrats in Sunday’s Washington Post:
The last time either party captured the White House two years after wresting
control of both House and Senate in midterm elections was in 1920. Democrats who
think that it is their turn to expand their pet programs and please their core
constituencies have forgotten how quickly congressional heavy-handedness can
revive the president’s party.
As Popkin and Kim point out, there have been four times since 1920 when the opposition party picked up one or both houses of Congress at the mid-terms but then lost the presidency two years later. These were in 1946, 1954, 1986, and 1994. In three of those four instances (all but 1986), the opposition candidate lost to an incumbent president—Truman, Eisenhower, and Clinton—and, in the fourth case, to the vice president, George H.W. Bush. Of course, 2008 will be entirely different. The Republican candidate for president will not come from the Bush White House, though that may well be to the GOP’s advantage given the fiasco in Iraq.

The swing toward the Democrats in recent public-opinion polls is substantial. At first, the numbers may not look that impressive. Charlie Cook recently pointed out in National Journal that, according to Gallup’s aggregated surveys for 2006, Democrats enjoyed a 3.9 percent edge in party ID (34.3 percent Democratic; 30.4 percent Republican; and 33.9 independents); that’s roughly a 5-point swing toward the Democrats from 2002. But when independents were asked which way they leaned, the Democrats’ edge rose to 10.2 percentage points. Says Cook: “That’s the biggest advantage either party has enjoyed since Gallup began pushing leaners in 1991—and it is significant. Leaners tend to end up voting for the party they tilt toward almost as consistently as do voters who say they belong to that party.”

Popkin and Kim are absolutely right, however, that the GOP could still hold the presidency in 2008, even in the face of Democratic gains in public opinion. I have the greatest respect for the two front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but I am not yet convinced that they can overcome the obvious obstacles to their election. According to the New York Times/CBS poll, if the election were held now, Americans would choose an unnamed Democrat over an unnamed Republican by a 20-point margin. Nonetheless, both Clinton and Obama have run behind in polls first to John McCain and now to Rudy Giuliani. Are Democrats so sure the country has put sexism and racism to rest that they want to bet the future of the country on that proposition? I wish I felt confident that was true. Perhaps as we get closer to next February I will.

Paul Starr


March 9, 2007

The Pullout Deadline Debate

From a new column at Prospect Online:

The strange thing about the debate in Congress over a deadline for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq is that the objective political interests of the two parties are the reverse of their stated positions.

Republicans are facing a disaster in the 2008 election if the Iraq War continues unabated. But if the Democratic Congress ties the president's hands and forces a pullout, the Republicans would have an excuse for the war's failure, and their party could move on to focus the 2008 election on other issues. If GOP leaders could act on pure political self-interest, they would be secretly encouraging just enough defections by their own members of Congress to pass legislation requiring a pullout.

Conversely, if Democrats succeed in setting a deadline, they would be taking some responsibility upon themselves for what happens in the wake of a pullout, and they would lose the advantage of focusing the 2008 election on the war. The Democrats' political interest lies in demonstrating a determination to end the war without actually passing legislation to require a pullout.

For the time being, the Republicans are nearly united in playing their appointed roles as lemmings on a fatal march to the '08 precipice. They have sufficient votes in the Senate to stop any pullout requirement, and there is always the backup of a presidential veto. All the major Republican presidential candidates have lined up in support of the war and even of the "surge." But what will they call for after that? Like chess players caught in a trap, they seem to have no good options for their next moves.

The Democrats, in contrast, are in the fortunate position of doing both what they believe is right and what serves their political interest—trying to end the war, but at this point without the votes in Congress that could actually cut off the requisite funds and authority.

For Democrats, the big danger in this situation is the illusion that a pullout from Iraq could end our troubles in the region. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Al-Qaeda grows in strength in nearby provinces of Pakistan. Iran has become more powerful and belligerent, and there is a risk of a larger regional Shia-Sunni war. Public opinion polls are registering high levels of approval for Democratic proposals in Congress partly on the basis of a mistaken impression that if we leave Iraq, we can put the whole mess behind us.

But that won't be possible. One of the reasons against invading Iraq was that the war would divert resources from the fight against al-Qaeda and perversely increase the risks of terrorism. One of the reasons for disentangling ourselves from Iraq is to pursue the fight against al-Qaeda more effectively. That is why a pullout has to be part of a more comprehensive diplomatic and military plan—which, barring a miraculous turnaround before then, only a new president elected in 2008 will be able to carry out.

Paul Starr

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March 8, 2007

He’s Already Feeling the Heat

In an article written on February 11 for the March issue of The American Prospect, I remarked, “If the Democratic tide in 2008 threatens to reach tsunami-like proportions, even a Republican thought to have a safe seat, such as Pete Domenici of New Mexico, could feel the heat.”

At the time, I had no particular reason to focus on Domenici, and few observers thought his seat would be in play. But the heat is already on. With the disclosure of his pre-election telephone call to federal prosecutor David Iglesias about pending corruption cases, the Democrats’ chances for taking the New Mexico seat have increased dramatically. The immediate effect will be to encourage a strong Democratic candidate (Bill Richardson? Tom Udall?) to get into the race. Look for Senator Domenici, who will be 76 in 2008, to decide it’s time to retire.

Paul Starr


March 4, 2007

Arthur Schlesinger’s Gift

I plan to have more to say about the legacy of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., but just a note about some of the commentary that has appeared in the week since his death at the age of 89.

In today’s New York Times, Sam Tanenhaus hails Schlesinger as the “last great public historian.” Like Russell Jacoby’s 1987 lament The Last Intellectuals, such praise of a departed generation implicitly disparages those who now practice the craft. I didn’t agree with Jacoby then, and 20 years later I don’t accept what Tanenhaus says. The public intellectual and public historian are not figures who have disappeared from our midst.

Schlesinger’s death takes from us a man with singular gifts, but he left us a gift too—his example. As E.J. Dionne writes in the Washington Post, it is a mistake to think that Schlesinger’s liberalism is being buried with him. And it is a mistake to believe that the seats that he and other historians ably filled in the public arena lie vacant.

Tanenhaus mentions two others besides Schlesinger—Richard Hofstadter and C. Vann Woodward—who qualified as great public historians. All three were important in defining the liberalism of the post-World War II era, though neither Hofstadter nor Woodward came close to matching Schlesinger in political prominence or sheer output.

If we take Hofstadter and Woodward as reasonable standards of comparison, I don’t think we lack for public historians who measure up to those of the mid-twentieth century. By public historians, I mean historians who engage the great public issues of their time and write about the past for the general public with authority and literary skill. Alan Brinkley, Sean Wilentz, and Garry Wills do this today, and there are others.

We no longer have Arthur Schlesinger, but the work goes on, not least of all because he showed us how to do it.

Paul Starr