George Will has some advice for how the Republican Party can win in 2012: just give up hopes of beating Obama and focus on winning the Senate back from the Democrats. An intriguing stratagem, but if history is any guide, one that would almost certainly fail. Will's upcoming Washington Post column was leaked to Politico's Mike Allen this morning and has already come in for a drubbing from the likes of William Kirstol, who responded simply at The Weekly Standard, "Rarely has an intelligent man been so wrong."
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Will's argument (as excerpted with lots of ellipses; we're looking forward to the full version this weekend), goes something like this: Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are such lousy candidates, that the G.O.P. ought to waste as little energy as possible on winning the White House and instead focus all energy on winning a control of the Senate (and defending their House majority) where they can block Obama's agenda:
If Republicans do, their committee majorities will serve as fine-mesh filters, removing President Obama's initiatives from the stream of legislation … [A] re-elected Obama -- a lame duck at noon next Jan. 20 -- would have a substantially reduced capacity to do harm. … [T]he presidency is not everything, and there will be another election in the next year divisible by four.
Fair enough point, in terms of outcomes. Many Democrats would argue that Republican control of the House has been enough to block Obama's agenda.
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But as a tactic, is the thing even possible? History says no. In the 20 presidential elections since 1932, as tallied by The American Presidency Project, the winning candidate's party has only seen losses in either chamber of Congress nine times, or less than half. Which makes sense, since it's hard to imagine too many instances where voters would like a presidential candidate enough to elect him, but hate his party so much that they throw out Congressional incumbents. So, Will's theory is looking pretty shaky.
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But! In six out of those nine instances when the party that won the White House lost Congressional seats were when incumbent presidents won re-election, just like the scenario that Will imagines. It happened to Roosevelt (twice), Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton. So, not bad odds! But here's where the whole thing falls apart. To win the Senate under Will's theory Republicans would need to pick up four seats (remember, they need to get to 51, since he's assuming that Obama's vice president will still be able to cast any tie-breaking votes).
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All six of these elections involved losses of Senate seats, but the average lost was just two. The biggest loss, when FDR was running for his third term in 1940, was three -- and in zero of those elections did the Senate majority switch.
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So, for Republicans to pull off the trick Will wants them to try, they would need to buck 80 years of political history, and somehow manufacture a swell of anti-incumbency in the Senate races while letting Obama walk to victory uncontested.
That tactic became an even longer shot this week when Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican, announced she's not running for reelection. The New York Times' Abby Goodnough reports it's "chaos" in Maine as politicians from both parties scramble to get in the race, but an open Republican seat is an easier way for the Democrats to offset any gains the G.O.P. makes elsewhere.
Still, what lessons could Republicans take from 1940? That year, Roosevelt had been in office eight years and had become less popular. Democrats were feeling rebellious. In August 1939, Sen. Marvel Logan predicted a loss of as much as six seats. The Associated Press reported:
"Although commenting that President Roosevelt 'has a lot of friends' among the 33 senators whose terms expire after the 1940 election, Logan predicted the chief executive would keep hands off the senatorial campaign. 'It is unlikely that someone who has burned his fingers once will stick them into the fire again," he added, in reference to the President's unsuccessful efforts to defeat three Democratic senators last year...
Senator Byrnes (Dem., S.C.) predicted yesterday at Spartanburg, S.C., that the President would not seek reelection. He added that if the division between Democrats in the last session was carried into the campaign, the party would lose in 1940."
The President trying to oust members of his own party might explain that rebelliousness. Republicans this year don't have that advantage. But there is one thing Republicans inspired by Will could replicate: Going national! The Palm Beach Post reported just before the 1940 election that "National issues have overshadowed purely State questions in most of the State races. Hence, politicians look for the Presidential balloting to turn the tide of many a State contest." Bill Kristol's objections to Will's idea are: "Obamacare. Iran. Debt. The military. The Court." Those also sound like excellent national issues for swing state Senate candidates to run on.