The Democrats' Worst Nightmare

Everybody thinks the Republicans are the ones in trouble. But history shows nothing wrecks a party like a bad second term.

It is common these days in Washington to portray the Republican Party as facing potentially existential dangers stemming from the outlandish influences of its Tea Party contingent, its strident opposition to President Obama’s liberal leadership, and underlying demographic trends in the country. And it is true that the Republicans face serious challenges, internal and external, that aren’t going away anytime soon.

But the Republican Party isn’t the party most in danger of a political blowout over the next three years. That distinction belongs to the Democrats, and it can be seen in a fundamental reality of America’s two-party system—namely, nothing devastates a ruling party as surely as a failed presidency.

This is not to say that Obama’s second term will be a failure. It’s too early for such a judgment. But the signs of failure are evident, perhaps most clearly in the perceptions of congressional Democrats facing reelection next year. It appears that some are beginning to put daylight between themselves and their president. Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu flew to her home state with Obama on Air Force One last week, but once they landed, according to the Wall Street Journal, she was too busy with other commitments to accompany the president during his state visit. The paper also reported that Obama met recently with Senate Democrats facing reelection and heard complaints about the rollout of his healthcare legislation and its impact on the nation’s political climate.

The reality that nothing devastates a ruling party as surely as a failed presidency is written indelibly in the country’s recent political history. Consider the Democratic fate in 1968, after Lyndon Johnson’s failed presidency—reflected in a devastating war that seemed out of control and impossible to win; racial and student riots that generated significant numbers of deaths in the streets; the threat of economic dislocations. The voters inevitably turned to opposition Republicans to clean up the mess. Thus did Richard Nixon become president.

Then there was the Nixon mess of 1973-1976—Watergate, the most unnerving political scandal in the country’s history; disruptions in the marketplace wrought by Nixon’s wage-price controls; a recession that spawned persistently high unemployment. The country not only repudiated the GOP presidential ticket in 1976 but also devastated the party’s congressional standing in 1974, reducing its House ranks by forty-three members and its Senate ranks by three. In 1976, the country turned to Jimmy Carter, who captured the national mood by promising the American people he would never lie to them.

But Carter proved unequal to the task of governing the country, manifest in runaway inflation and persistently a sluggish economy (the brew known as "stagflation") and in his weak leadership in the face of major foreign challenges. And so the American people repudiated him and his party at the next election. Carter carried only six states and the District of Columbia and captured just forty-nine electoral votes to Ronald Reagan’s 489. Meanwhile, Democrats lost thirty-three seats in the House and twelve in the Senate, which came under GOP control for the first time since 1953.

And then there is Obama himself, elected in 2008 largely because of the tarnished Republican image after President George W. Bush’s second term, a failed presidency by any measure. This was evidenced by a misguided Iraq adventure that was initiated on the basis of false intelligence and which mired the United States in a bog of chaos that it could neither control nor escape. Add to that the runaway fiscal policies of the Bush years, culminating in the financial collapse of 2008 and the most horrendous economic plunge since the Great Depression.

Obama may believe he won the subsequent election based on his sparkling public persona and the overwhelming wisdom of his policies, and they no doubt contributed to his getting the 2008 Democratic nomination. But his general-election victory came to him primarily through the fundamental political reality in American politics that presidential elections are won or lost based, more than anything else, on the record of the incumbent. Bush’s second-term record was sub-par, which meant that no Republican that year was going to beat any Democrat.

Is the current presidential-election cycle shaping up similarly, only with the Democratic incumbent ushering in a new GOP surge? Based on Obama’s performance in this first year of his second term, such a prospect can’t be discounted. And it isn’t just the performance, but also the president’s approach to his job these days. He seems disengaged, airily disconnected from the fray, contemptuous not only of his GOP opposition (a counterproductive attitude in itself) but somewhat contemptuous of the whole political game.

That may be why some polls are picking up a significant new development in Obama’s standing with the electorate. In the past, as his approval ratings fluctuated, his "personal-favorability ratings" remained solid. Thus, even when the American people weren’t happy with his governance, they still liked the man himself. This kind of personal popularity can help presidents weather the tough times of their tenure, as it did for Obama through his first term. But now, according to a late-October Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, only 41 percent of respondents viewed Obama in a favorable light. Fully 45 percent held negative views of him as a person.

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