Are we seeing a return of the Midterm Blues?
Following the spate of difficulties that the Bush Administration has faced in recent months – Iraq, Katrina, immigration, Abramoff etc – the President has now got to face the midterm elections this November. Then he’ll see the entire House of Representatives, one third of the Senate and a host of statewide posts up for election.
Historically, American voters have seen the midterms as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with their incumbent presidential and congressional leadership. However, in the last four years, the Republican Party recorded impressive results in 2002/04 and inflicting further losses on the Democratic Party. 2006 is shaping up very differently. The latest poll places support for the Bush Administration at the same level as that enjoyed by Nixon and Carter at the nadir of their administrations.
The bedrock of Bush and the Republicanâ€™s success has been an energised and motivated conservative base. However, the perceived neglect of issues such as gay marriage, tax cuts and immigration controls has alienated many on the right. In addition, while the Republicans could portray themselves as competent and efficient in the past (in contrast to the Democrats), a string of scandals and failures on the part of the Republican congressional leadership has dramatically undermined that perception.
In contrast, prospects for the Democrats seem good. Polls show a majority of Americans favouring a Democrat controlled congress. Meanwhile, Democrats have also made headway in recruiting a number of strong Congressional candidates at the same time as the Republicanâ€™s woes seem to be going from bad to worse.
Yet Democrats face a number of serious obstacles on the way to retaking control of congress. Gerrymandering has dramatically reduced the number of competitive House districts (in 2004, all of Californiaâ€™s 53 Representatives won re-election), while the advantages of incumbency in terms of resources and organisation has, in many cases, allowed Republican incumbents to entrench themselves.
At the same time as the Democrats face structural obstacles this November, they must also overcome serious divisions within their own party over policy. Divisions between assertive liberal activists and the more moderate party leadership have left the party increasingly divided and unable to adopt the kind of clear, disciplined narrative that the Republicans are often able to employ to such effect.
The Economist recently summarised the contrast between the embattled Republican majority and the muddled Democrat opposition thus: â€œâ€¦if the Republicans reek of decay, the Democrats ooze dysfunctionality: divided, beholden to interest-groups and without a coherent policy on anything that matters to America and the worldâ€
Yet despite their weaknesses, the Republican Party can still count on a number of key factors. The strength of incumbency means that most Republican incumbents will go into the elections this autumn with advantages in organisation and fundraising over their democrat opponents. Furthermore, the Democrats continue to seem a long way from developing an arresting narrative with which to define the elections this November and they continue to enjoy only lukewarm support in the polls.
So far, Republican failures are providing the foundation for Democrat success in November. However, the Democratsâ€™ failures to exhibit the mixture of discipline and originality needed to maintain momentum makes the prospect of a dramatic advance (as in 1994) remote, while potentially leaving the Democrats vulnerable should the Republican leadership begin to regain the political initiative.
Ben Surtees began contributing to the site when he was a Labour activist. He’s now become a Tory and maintains a close interest in US politics