Sunday, October 22, 2006

Do Midterm Elections Really Matter Anyway?

Noah Feldman's got an interesting article up today over at the New York Times Magazine. He argues that midterm elections are mainly expressions of the public mood, with little impact on the future direction of public policy:

Putting aside especially popular or unpopular local candidates, they offer a snapshot judgment on the president’s performance — more like a midterm exam than a final that really counts. Voter turnout reflects these diminished stakes.
Feldman goes on to note that the because President Bush has been so consistent in his positions (he's no wishy-washy flip-flopper), it's going to be hard for the Demcrats to affect real change come 2007:

So what kind of a message will we the people send to Washington? Polls show that roughly 40 percent of Americans identify themselves as conservative and that their support for the president remains strong. On some issues, like immigration, the president has alienated parts of his right-wing base. (Of course, his views match not only those of globalist liberals but also of corporate America with its unceasing need for cheap labor.) But their frustration notwithstanding, true-red conservatives have nowhere else to go.

Another 20 percent of the electorate describe themselves as liberal, and it is safe to assume that few of them intend to vote Republican this year. That leaves the 40 percent of voters who consider themselves moderates. Those who voted for John Kerry are almost certainly going to vote Democratic again. (Do you know anybody who voted for Kerry in 2004 and wishes he hadn’t?)

The people whose votes are in play this time are ’04 Bush voters who are now disaffected by the president’s performance. Any message in 2006 is going to have to come from them, and it will necessarily take the form of regret: I wish I’d voted for the other guy.

President Bush’s low approval ratings seem to be owed to two main factors: the progressively worsening situation in Iraq and the perception, strengthened by the nonresponse to Hurricane Katrina, that the president is either incompetent himself or appoints incompetent people to important jobs. (The Foley sex scandal has been much in the news, but its impact may fade by Election Day.) It is notable, however, that neither of these serious problems — Iraq and the competence of the executive branch — can be readily affected through a midterm election. Even if the Democrats win big, they will not be able to effect substantial changes in either Bush’s war policy or his ability to govern better.

When it comes to making foreign policy, Congress has few if any prerogatives. It may have the power of the purse, but no Congress, and especially not a Democratic one, can afford to deny a president’s requests for military spending to support troops on the ground. Our armed forces in Iraq will almost certainly remain there through the next two years — and they have to be financed until they come home. In a less partisan time, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could function as an active player in the day-to-day shaping of foreign policy. Yet a glance at how the Bush administration has sidelined the moderate Republican leadership of that committee — Senators Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel — suggests that a Democratically controlled committee would be even further out in the cold.

If the Democrats have little prospect of influencing Iraq policy, it is also because they have chosen not to adopt any policy of their own, except for occasionally calling for a nominal withdrawal deadline. This careful positioning reflects both the recognition that there’s little they can do to change the president’s mind and the political judgment that, for the most part, the public has not demanded more from them. Democrats do not want to be the first to declare that the war in Iraq has been lost. Although Americans overwhelmingly believe we are not doing well in Iraq, the Democrats cannot take the risk that the public will blame the messenger, equating those who acknowledge defeat with those who are responsible for defeat.

Nor can a Democratic Congress do much to make the Bush administration more competent. The Senate can block the most egregious nominees, helping to ensure that we will have no more appointments like the hapless Michael Brown, the man at the heart of the FEMA disaster. It can also keep at least some ideologues and nonentities off the federal courts — including the Supreme Court, should another spot open. But many of the most incompetent political hacks in any administration are below the radar of confirmation processes, and besides, someone has to fill the jobs that empty out late in an administration when the first-round draft picks head back to the private sector. If the Democrats do take the House, the Senate or both, many Republican Congressional aides will want to leave their now-minority staff positions for the prestige and power of the executive branch — and even if they can, Hill Democrats will be loath to block their former staff colleagues’ nominations, knowing that some day in a Democratic administration, they too could be looking to make a similar move.

What that leaves the Democrats is oversight — an idea that right now gets their hearts racing but whose limits will eventually become apparent. With Democrats at the helm, Congress can certainly act in particular realms. It can try to limit secret wiretaps, assuming it can find them, and it can call cabinet secretaries and generals on the carpet to explain just why we are doing so badly in Iraq. There are old scandals to reopen, and no doubt plenty of new ones just waiting to be uncovered. What Congressional Democrats cannot do, however, is change the basic direction of the country. The president has not presided as a flexible man, and many of the problems Congress will confront are at present intractable. Government in the sunshine is a good thing — but a brightly lit Washington will still, mostly, be George W. Bush’s Washington.
Bruce Bartlett -- who became persona non grata among Bush administration insiders a year or two ago when he attacked the president as bankrupting the country -- made a similar argument in the Times last week. Bartlett points out that President Bush will wield the veto to check Democratic ambitions, and that a Democratic majority -- if it comes -- will be so small that moderate Democrats working with the Republicans will provide the key votes on legislation.

I think both Feldman and Bartlett underestimate the significance of out-party gains at the midterm. In 1994, the GOP did overreach with talk of a prime-ministership under Newt Gingrich, but President Clinton was significantly chastened to scale back his agenda in favor of Republican priorities -- like welfare reform in 1996.

I do hope that the 2006 elections represent an expressive interlude by which the voters merely let off some steam, rather than causing dramatic change in the direction of public policy. We need more competence in government, not more liberal government.

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