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Democrats Don’t Do Unity Well

By Elvin Lim


The generic Democratic ballot appeared to rebound a little last week, in part because of the Republican Pledge to America, the story of Christine O’Donnell of Delaware spreading in the liberal base, and in part because of anticipation of the One Nation march on the National Mall this weekend. Could it be that Democrats may actually be able to keep their majorities in Congress if this trend continues?A cold look at history tells us that the odds are still low. One of the iron laws of American politics is that the president’s party almost always loses seats in the House in off-year, mid-term elections. Since 1870, there have been 35 mid-term elections and on all but four occasions, the president’s party lost seats in the House (the average loss is 34 seats).

On these four occasions, the gains made by the president’s party were minor. Republicans and Democrats respectively picked up 9 seats in 1902 and 1934 (perhaps having the last name, Roosevelt, had something to do with it.) In 1998, the Democrats picked up 4 seats in part because of the public backlash against the Clinton impeachment proceedings. In 2002, the Republicans did not lose any seats (or gain any) and bucked the historical trend because the country was rallying behind the president after September 11. (Democrats searching for hope this year should observe that three of these exceptions occurred in year two of a new presidency; 1998 was the only exception to the famous “six-year itch.”)

On average, Democrats have proven to be more adept at losing seats than Republicans, consistent with the conventional wisdom that the Republican party is a more orderly party and better able to act in unison than Democrats can. Democrats have typically lost 39 seats in the house in mid-term elections (exactly the number the Republicans need to take over to gain majority control this year), while Republicans have lost an average of 32 seats in mid-terms.

The virtue of being a not-so-big-tent party is that there tends to be less internal disagreement within the Republican party than in the Democratic party. It took a Tea Party movement to create dissension within Republican ranks, and yet some would argue that the movement has only rallied and unified the base.

On the Democratic side however, value, demographic, and ideological pluralism has always been a double-edged sword. For here is the telling history of 2009-2011: whereas Republicans are united that Obama was a mistake, Democrats are far from united about what mistakes Obama has made. The liberal faction of the Democratic party, for example, began losing faith in Obama when he compromised on universal health-care, and conservative “blue-dog” Democrats parted ways with their brethren just when the president proposed a middle-way in the form of a government sponsored “public option.” This is the perverse outcome of the party boasting more registered members than the Republican party (or for that matter, any other organization in the world.)

If Democrats, unlike Republicans, don’t do unity well, then it may well be that they could be better off, or at least no worse off than they are today, should Republicans take one or both Houses of Congress this year. If divided party control of government shall come to pass, it would be because the Democrats were already splintered from the very moment they were blessed with united or single party control of government. Put another way, it may not really matter what happens come November, because Democrats were only united in name in 2009-2011 (and that was possibly what made the infighting more intense).

Indeed, Democrats might even glean a silver lining in losing Congress.  The two most cankerous periods of Democratic party history in recent memory – the Carter presidency, and the first two years of the Clinton presidency – were also the only other times in the last four decades when the Democrats were blessed with the bitter-sweet mandate of single party control of all branches of government.

Democrats appear to have have internalized the pluralist’s precept that power corrupts. So they may just be about to shoot themselves in the foot again this November.

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. Read Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

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