JONATHAN CHAIT JULY 6, 2010
Jonathan Cohn, a.k.a Citizen Cohn, a.k.a. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, has a reply to our old American Prospect editor Bob Kuttner's Huffington Post column taking the Obama administration to ask for its moderate ways. I'd like to make a reply to one particular part of Kuttner's argument, where he asserts that Democratic electoral losses in November will be due to Obama's lack of ideological resolve rather than to structural factors:
Come November, as Republicans break out champagne, the usual commentators will offer the usual alibis and silver linings.
The party of the newly elected president always loses Congressional seats. Not always: viz. Roosevelt, 1934, or Bush II, 2002. The two men shared nothing, except resolve in a crisis. That should tell you something. Where's Obama's resolve?
This is not persuasive. Here's a chart showing the relationship between economic conditions and midterm election results:
First, note that almost every president loses seats in midterm elections. The state of the economy influences the magnitude of the losses, though other conditions can exert significant influence. But the general trend is that midterm elections are bad for the president's party, and slow income growth is even worse. Ronald Reagan had a lot of "resolve," but he still lost a lot of seats in 1982.
Kuttner cites two notable exceptions to the pattern of the president's party losing midterm election seats. The first is 2002. I think it's pretty clear that the 9/11 attacks had an unusually powerful role here. The second is 1934. That's not on the above chart, which begins in 1950. Is that another exception? Actually, no. Personal income grew an astronomical 12.7% in 1934.
So we're down to one exception to the rule: 2002. Locating a single exception to a well-established trend is not a good reason to ignore the trend.