What would a Democratic victory — likely now but not certain in the House races, possible if all the close ones go their way in the Senate races — mean? Would it mean that we are heading into a political realignment, to a time when Republican positions can no longer rally a majority?
Not really, I think. Right now, it doesn’t look like Democrats will end up with the kind of popular vote percentage in House elections won by their party in 1974 (up from 46 percent to 58 percent in two years) or Republicans in 1994 (up from 46 percent to 52 percent).
They’re more likely to prevail, if they do, by something like the narrow margins by which Republicans have prevailed in the five House elections from 1996 to 2004. By historical standards, there’s been strikingly little variation in those five elections. A Democratic victory of this magnitude would represent the kind of small oscillation that was commonplace in eras when one party or the other was dominant. The difference is that, with the electorate so evenly divided, a small shift can produce changes in party control.
Political realignments occur because of events that have deep demographic impact and when one party stands for new ideas that command majority support. The Iraq war (2,500 deaths) and our current economy (4.6 percent unemployment) are not events of the magnitude of the Civil War (600,000 dead) or the Great Depression (25 percent unemployment).
Moreover, voters’ complaints about George W. Bush and the Republican Congress are more about competence than ideology. Why is Bush’s second-term job approval so much lower than Bill Clinton’s even though the economy has been in similarly good shape during both periods? Iraq. Katrina.
Voters wonder why our involvement has gone on so long in Iraq, with continuing casualties. They wonder why more aid did not get to New Orleans faster. You may argue, as I do, that those perceptions are unfair, that Clinton benefited because we were on holiday from history and Bush suffers because of the threats Sept. 11 revealed. But they are what they are.
And what are the new ideas that Democrats are campaigning on? They’ve had a hard time coming up with a list. At the top, usually, is raising the minimum wage. That’s a law that Congress first passed in 1938. Liberal think tankers will tell you that if you want progressive redistribution of income, the minimum wage is a far weaker tool than the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Bill Clinton and the Democratic Congress did expand the EITC in the 1990s, with a small but perceptible redistributive effect — one of their policy successes. Democrats today could campaign on expanding it further. But the minimum wage tests better in polls.
As for the macroeconomy, the Democrats offer few policies except to refuse to extend the Bush tax cuts, which in important cases don’t expire till 2010. On foreign policy, their stands tend to be incoherent: We should be more multilateral in Iraq and less multilateral on North Korea. "Redeployment" of troops from Iraq to Okinawa (John Murtha) or Kuwait (Hillary Rodham Clinton).
The Democratic plea is that the Republicans should be punished for incompetence. But even with majorities in both houses of Congress, Democrats will be poorly positioned to offer competence itself. You can make a good case that the Republicans have run out of ideas — they’ve implemented most of Bush’s 2000 platform (tax cuts, education accountability, Medicare changes, more defense spending) and have conclusively failed to implement others (Social Security individual accounts). But Democrats don’t have much in the way of ideas to advance in their place.
If a Democratic victory presages realignment, we should see some evidence of that in the polling for 2008. But we don’t. Which party has candidates that can poll above their party’s 1996-2004 ceilings — 49 percent for Democrats (Clinton 1996), 51 percent for Republicans (Bush 2004)?
Republicans pretty clearly have two, Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain. Democrats can hope that Hillary Rodham Clinton, with her carefully calibrated stands on Iraq and foreign policy, and her bipartisan work on some domestic issues, could be another. So, if he decides to run, could Barack Obama. Another might have been Mark Warner, but he’s not running.
The polling showing Giuliani and McCain well ahead of Clinton and other Democrats suggests that national security — who can best protect the nation against those who are seeking to destroy us? — can still work for Republicans and that domestic issues don’t necessarily work for Democrats. Competence may defeat Republicans in 2006, but that doesn’t mean that ideology can win for Democrats in 2008.