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Mark Shields: Will 2010 Resemble 1982 or 1994 Politically?

Democrats have cause for concern but there's no public support for Republicans

The official U.S. unemployment rate on the midterm Election Day stood at 10 percent. According to the Gallup Poll, only one out of three voters approved of the president’s handling of the economy, and a majority believed that his economic program would worsen rather than improve their own financial situations.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

The president — whose job rating would drop to 35 percent favorable by January — was Ronald Reagan. The year was 1982. And the Republicans lost 26 seats in the House of Representatives.

Twelve years later, the unemployment rate was just 5.8 percent. The young Democratic leader — whose job approval would drop to 37 percent, the following January — took most of the blame when his party lost 52 House seats and majority control in the first midterm election of the Bill Clinton presidency.

The question both Democrats and Republicans are asking each other this January is: Will Election Day 2010 for the Democrats be 1982 — a stinging setback — or 1994 — an unmitigated disaster?

Alan Ginsburg, a historian friend of mine, suggests a third possibility: that 2010 could turn out to be more like 1990, when voters, widely disgusted with Washington’s direction of the country and not pleased with their first-term Republican president, George H.W. Bush, limited the Out-Party Democrats to a pick-up of just seven House seats.

But, more significantly, for the only time in a century, winning House incumbents in 1990 of both parties saw voters across the country reduce their winning margins from the previous election. This 1990 national vote-of-less-confidence was the clear signal of the political upheaval that would follow in the next four years, including Ross Perot’s independent candidacy, Bush’s defeat and the Republican congressional victory. Made sense to me.

It is true that even as voters’ confidence in the ruling Democrats has been shaken, there has been no increase in public support of the Republicans. But according to Gary Jacobson of UC San Diego, an authority on congressional voting, the midterm elections are almost always “a referendum on the party in power” — and even more so when the same party controls both Congress and the White House. Midterm elections are not, fortunately for the Republicans at this point, a referendum on the Out Party, its leadership or its legislative program.

One encouraging sign for the Democrats, who need all they can get: In the 1994 rout, 40 of the 52 House seats the Democrats lost that year were “open” seats where there was no incumbent. When the re-election success rate of incumbent House members has been above 95 percent, if the Democrats can keep the number of their colleagues retiring in 2010 to single digits, their party should be able to avoid any recurrence of a 1994 tsunami.

Jacobson acknowledges the current widespread voter displeasure with the status quo and political incumbents, but adds that in 2010 “I’d rather be a status-quo Republican than a status-quo Democrat.” He adds that the energy and enthusiasm, especially from young and minority voters, that fueled Barack Obama’s 2008 victory and a net pick-up of 54 Democratic House seats in the last two elections, appears to have significantly switched to the Republican side.

What 2010 looks like now is the third straight national election which is between the Ins and the Outs, or more accurately, about throwing the Ins Out. In 2006 and 2008, the Republicans were the In. For 2010, the unpopular role of the Ins will be played by the Democrats, who right now must be lighting candles that Alan Ginsburg could be right — that they dodge the bullet of history, and 2010 turns out to be another 1990.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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