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The 1982 election and pundit fallability

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Washington is thick with dire predictions for Democrats in the midterm elections and pundits obsessively speculating whether Barack Obama ruined his presidency by trying to solve problems in his first year in office right now, so it was interesting to come across this old David Broder column assessing Ronald Reagan's presidency after the 1982 election, in which House Democrats gained 27 seats.

It is customary in the second January after each inaugural ceremony to write a midterm assessment of a presidency. That is what I set out to do. But it quickly became clear that in the case of Ronald Reagan, something else is required.

What we are witnessing this January is not the midpoint in the Reagan presidency, but its phase-out. "Reaganism," it is becoming increasingly clear, was a one- year phenomenon, lasting from his nomination in the summer of 1980 to the passage of his first budget and tax bills in the summer of 1981. What has been occurring ever since is an accelerating retreat from Reaganism, a process in which he is more spectator than leader.

One measure of that transition was last week's Gallup Poll showing Reagan trailing two leading Democrats in trial heats for the 1984 election. Former vice president Walter Mondale had a 52-40 percent lead, and Sen. John Glenn of Ohio had a 54-39 advantage.

Such leads for opposition candidates are extremely rare at this stage of the cycle when all presidents, including Reagan, enjoy an aura of authority. But presidential polls change. Much more significant is the way in which power is moving away from Reagan in the ongoing work of government. What began as a process of delegation is rapidly approaching abdication.

This isn't meant as a knock on Broder. The column, which I've pasted below the fold, holds up fairly well in its criticism of Reagan's leadership style, if not in its prediction of Reagan's influence on the country's politics. I post it only to suggest that it's hard to know the mistakes that pundits (myself included) might or might not be making in their assessments of Obama, but it's pretty certain we're making some very big mistakes.

I'd also note that both Bill Clinton and Reagan lost a lot of seats in their first midterm elections (George W. Bush looked like he'd do the same until 9/11), so though Obama's performance and the unemployment rate are both elements feeding into November's outcome, there's a historical trend here worth keeping in mind. Since the Civil War, only two presidents have picked up seats in the midterm election following their inauguration. That says something about our system's ability to repel reformers and leave the public cynical about their champions, but that's a topic for another day.

Anyway, Broder's column follows:

It is customary in the second January after each inaugural ceremony to write a midterm assessment of a presidency. That is what I set out to do. But it quickly became clear that in the case of Ronald Reagan, something else is required.

What we are witnessing this January is not the midpoint in the Reagan presidency, but its phase-out. "Reaganism," it is becoming increasingly clear, was a one- year phenomenon, lasting from his nomination in the summer of 1980 to the passage of his first budget and tax bills in the summer of 1981. What has been occurring ever since is an accelerating retreat from Reaganism, a process in which he is more spectator than leader.


One measure of that transition was last week's Gallup Poll showing Reagan trailing two leading Democrats in trial heats for the 1984 election. Former vice president Walter Mondale had a 52-40 percent lead, and Sen. John Glenn of Ohio had a 54-39 advantage.

Such leads for opposition candidates are extremely rare at this stage of the cycle when all presidents, including Reagan, enjoy an aura of authority. But presidential polls change. Much more significant is the way in which power is moving away from Reagan in the ongoing work of government. What began as a process of delegation is rapidly approaching abdication.

Look at the world scene. The Middle East peace effort is at a crucial juncture, so special envoy Philip Habib is hard at work on the problem. The Far East demands attention, so Secretary of State George Shultz puts in a long Saturday of briefings, in preparation for a trip to China, Japan and Korea. Western Europe stirs in response to a peace initiative from the new Soviet leader, so Vice President George Bush schedules a round of high- level talks in the European capitals.

Meanwhile, the president--back five days from his most recent California holiday--is photographed in sports clothes, heading off for a weekend at Camp David.

To be sure, there is important, unfinished business to occupy him. As he left for Camp David, final decisions had not yet been made on the budget he submits at the end of the month. But less and less effort is made to pretend that Ronald Reagan is managing those decisions on a day- by-day basis. On the contrary, his own aides leaked word that he had skipped last Friday's budget session, and one senior official told The Post's Lou Cannon and David Hoffman that Reagan "is probably the most detached president that has served in that office in a long, long time." 2 His detachment is extraordinary, in face of record unemployment and a fiscal crisis that threatens intolerable deficits of $200 billion or more each year for the foreseeable future. Republican congressional leaders, administration economic and budget officials, the senior White House staff and the inner-circle Cabinet members were struggling all last week to find a way to escape the mess that threatens the nation's and the world's long-term economic prospects.

They brought their ideas to Reagan, who sent them back to work again. Why? Not because he was raising important questions the others had failed to consider, or suggesting alternatives they were not imaginative enough to see. No one pretends that Reagan contributes to the policy-analysis process in that way. His role was to ask how the measures they were recommending could be reconciled with his promises of 1980-81 and the simplistic rhetoric of his 30 years on the conservative banquet circuit.

The job, as Cannon and Hoffman described it, was "to make Reagan recognize that his most cherished goals could not be reconciled"--not with each other and not with external realities.

The real work of governing at this point is to deal with the complexities of the world scene and to remedy the errors and excesses of domestic policy that marked the year of Reagan's ascendancy--to slow the runaway growth of defense spending, to recapture some of the squandered revenue base, to cancel the foolish indexation of tax rates before it goes into effect.

In that process of mid-course correction, Reagan is less the man out front than the barrier to be overcome. Even if he is persuaded to lend his voice to the effort, he will be the tag-along.

At some point down the road, the phaseout of the Reagan presidency will confront the Republican Party with an awkward but vital choice of its future leadership. At that point, those who are now cooperating in easing the transition from Reaganism--the Bushes, Laxalts, Bakers and Doles, plus the key members of the White House staff and Cabinet--may choose up sides in the struggle for succession. Some may see a signal of that moment's imminence in Sen. Howard Baker's hint that he will leave the Senate to seek the presidential nomination when Reagan steps down. But the country is fortunate that, for now, these men are putting aside their personal ambitions and working together to fill the vacuum of leadership that Reagan's phaseout has left.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 1, 2010; 7:03 AM ET
 
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Next: Commented: Should the Democratic Party offer financial support to Democrats who vote against health-care reform?

Comments

Ezra,


the difference to me is that in 2012 IF healthcare passes we'll be still waiting for the goodies (exchanges, efficencies) while paying the costs all while we'll stil be getting well into double digit increases. Its going to be a tough sell.

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 1, 2010 7:58 AM | Report abuse

The main takeaway here is that the economic recovery will play a huge role. As Larry Sabato pointed out on Sunday's Washington Journal, Reagan benefitted hugely from the timing of the end of the recession (I believe it was early 1983?). Obama needs to hope for a solid economic recovery with respect to his re-election bid. And the point you make is of course one of the few near-truths in politics: president's typically do not fair well in midterm elections.

Posted by: gocowboys | March 1, 2010 8:15 AM | Report abuse

Just like after 1994, the president is going to be impeached after the GOP take over the House this year. Obama will not have an opportunity to save his presidency after this year, either because he will be removed from office or because the radical GOP will be controlling enough of the House and Senate to wreak havoc in America with endless birther-style investigations, impeachment, obstructionism and sabotage. I predict massive financial havoc prior to 2012 as a result of the impending GOP takeover.

Posted by: Lomillialor | March 1, 2010 8:33 AM | Report abuse

The real issue with Obama & Healthcare is that Obama & Pelosi are hell-bent on dealing with the issue of improving access to healthcare for the 30 million who supposedly want it, but can't get it. BUT THEN THEY GO ON TO CLAIM they are dealing with the spiraling cost of healthcare---which not only are they avoiding through ridiculous gimmicks and contrived CBO assumptions.

They should focus primarily on lowering the cost curve----this would dramatically IMPROVE access to those who are finding access difficult, it would improve the economy, and persuade American voters that they are not rigid ideologues committed to duping the public into a bankrupt healthcare system that will be forced to become a Single-Payer System in a duplicitous Cloward-Piven scheme.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | March 1, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

To continue on your point, the incumbent president's party has only not lost seats in the midterm elections two times in the past 80 years: The Great Depression and 9/11. It doesn't really say much therefore about Obama's presidency should the democrats lose seats in November.

See:

http://www.politico.com/news/stories
/1109/29323.html

Posted by: DropItLikeItsHot | March 1, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I think Obama & Pelosi underestimate the American voters ability to understand how rigid progressive radicals are already succeeding at using Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac to continue to bilk tax payers and fund their big banking buddies....Americans get it---unfortunately about 15 months too late to stop Obama from being President...but they get it now. And they refuse to be shamed through anecdotal politics into expanding their ponzi scheme over into the healthcare system.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | March 1, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

@Lomillialor: "Just like after 1994, the president is going to be impeached after the GOP take over the House this year."

Assuming the Republicans take over both houses--because it makes no sense to try to impeach the president without controlling both bodies--I still don't think it's likely. The Republicans are behaving as they are now with an eye to returning to power. After Gaining seatings in 1994 and modest losses in the house (but gains in the senate) in 1996--Despite Clinton's clear presidential victory--they lost seats in 1998 and, as importantly, started dropping in the polls during the impeachment process.

I'm not saying it won't happen--and you'll always hear noises, just like you heard noises about the Democrats impeaching Bush, though it never happened--but I don't think they'll make that same mistake again.

Also, the Independent Counsel law expired in 1999. Without a Kenneth Starr out there with broad, almost unlimited power, to investigate, subpoena, and spend the tax payers money on nonsense, impeachment is a lot more problematic.

Investigations are possible--not about his birthplace, mind you, but I could see investigations into campaign donations or something else, if they feel there is enough of a smoking gun to make a credible case. The investigations would be used to tarnish and obstruct. Although, as always, Republicans should keep in mind that he who lives by the sword dies by it.

No impeachment, assuming they get both houses (a large assumption). I bet you a dollar.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 1, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

I definitely agree that pundits are too quick to say who is going to win the next election. Case in point: Gordon Brown, who reporters have consistently written off is only down 2 points. People should stop saying who we are going to vote for, only we know that and we're not telling!

Posted by: wstompy | March 1, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

FastEddie: I'm not sure Americans get it. Otherwise, there'd be a lot more protests against perpetuating and extending the potential economic damage of the former Government Sponsored Entities that played a direct role in the collapse of the housing market.

Healthcare Reform, at worse, is an unknown. It could be bad, it could be good, it could be neutral. Wonks and political junkies know, or should know--and there is plenty of historical evidence--that the practices at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae helped torpedo the economy. And yet, those practices are being extended and expanded and oversight is being reduced.

It's arguably the worst thing being done under the current administration, and the American people seem to be focused on Healthcare Reform or whether or not Harry Reid is a racist or Rahm Emmanuel using the r-word or what have you. So, maybe more Americans get it than I think. I certainly hope so. But come November, will candidates be running on reigning Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in? I kind of doubt it.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 1, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Also, the Broder piece isn't pundit fallibility so much as it is a case of classic wishful thinking. Ergo: this is what I want, so this is what I predict.

You see that in a lot of the conservative punditry about Obama: Not just a 1-term president, but a 1-year president, the American people now understand that Obama is a Socialist, yada yada yada.

It's wishful thinking. People may understand that they didn't get their hopey-changey, or a nice big fat check from Obama, but the idea that all right-thinking people have reached the same conclusions as the pundit in question is always wishful thinking. And the Broder piece is a great example of that.

Finally, Broder's criticisms of Reagan are predictable, but not entirely accurate, and certainly not unbiased. Every president, with some sort of issue to deal with here or there, gets photographed in sports clothes, or goes vacationing in Hawaii, or goes golfing. Those aren't legitimate criticisms, those are observations that can be made of almost every president, but are only case in a negative light when we don't like the politics of a particular president.

I think it's a very superficial analysis. For a little perspective on the Reagan presidency, try The Reagan Diaries.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 1, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Fast Eddie, we really need to get to a point where we can just all agree that the Republicans aren't interested in passing HCR with a Democratic president. There's just too much evidence that this is about politics.

If Wyden-Bennett was guaranteed at least 70 votes because it does more for cost containment we wouldn't be talking about the current bills because they wouldn't exist. But we're to a point where it's politically useful for a minority party to obstruct a President's agenda and so that's what minority parties do.

On the substance of the post, I pretty much agree with what I took to be the point: Pundits make predictions based on very short term analysis which often proves to be wrong. Presidents tend to lose seats in the midterms and it doesn't always cripple their presidency. President Obama may or may not be reelected in 2012, but that will have much more to do with what things are like in October/November of 2012, particularly relating to the economy, than what things are like in March 2010.

Posted by: MosBen | March 1, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Just to be clear, the public backs health care reform by large margins.

The idea that the public does not want health care reform is a based on a (pretty lame) Republican strategy to deliberately misrepresent poll results. The strategy is to use polls that simply ask people whether they dislike the current bill in congress, without asking them for the *reasons* for their dislike. If you do this, you can easily find 56 percent or so who will say they dislike the bill. But any poll that asks for people's *reasons* for disliking the bill shows that they want a bill that goes *further* than Obama's bill. For example, look at p.3 of this CBS poll:

http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/poll_obama_011110.pdf?tag=contentMain;contentBody

61 percent of Americans think that either the bill "is about right" or "does not go far enough" in regulating insurance companies. Of these 61 percent, a whopping 43 percent thinks that the bill does not go far enough! Only a small minority of 27 percent think that the bill "goes too far".

Any Democratic congressperson who cares about their seat realizes that this is hugely popular legislation. It will be great fun to see Republicans and "conservative" Democrats who vote against the bill fumble to explain to their constituents in November why exactly they felt the need to gang up with the insurance industry and try to defeat landmark health care legislation that is supported by some two thirds of the American people.

Posted by: opinionpieces | March 1, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

opinionpieces, not only that, but a lot of the opposition to the current bills is that people don't understand what's in there. Other than the deals that got Nelson, et. al. aboard, the individual pieces of the legislation tend to vote pretty well, and things like the public option were always pretty popular.

It's the process that's primarily been unpopular, not the individual pieces of the bills and certainly not the idea of reform itself.

Posted by: MosBen | March 1, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Wonks and political junkies know, or should know--and there is plenty of historical evidence--that the practices at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae helped torpedo the economy. And yet, those practices are being extended and expanded and oversight is being reduced.

It's arguably the worst thing being done under the current administration, and the American people seem to be focused on Healthcare Reform or whether or not Harry Reid is a racist or Rahm Emmanuel using the r-word or what have you. So, maybe more Americans get it than I think. I certainly hope so. But come November, will candidates be running on reigning Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in? I kind of doubt it.


Kevin Willis - You're right....something really needs to be done---Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are filling up the balloon as we speak, and the BUBBLE WILL BURST AGAIN...AND ITS ALL THESE RECKLESS-AT-BEST TRAITOROUS-AT-WORST DemocRATS fault!!!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | March 1, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Ezra - You're an pologist for this admin...did Rahm Emanuel cut you in on some of the overflowing dollars at Fannie Mae?

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | March 1, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Fast Eddie, I generally try to avoid being uptight about forum courtesies, but is your post really related to Ezra's? I've seen similar posts from you in other threads and it looks like you're just spamming every thread with this stuff because you're got an axe to grind on this issue.

I don't really have enough on which to base a response to your comment, so you're really not helping start or continue any conversations.

Posted by: MosBen | March 1, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, you should spell-check your headlines.

Posted by: thehersch | March 1, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

The most fascinating part of the article, in light of 8 years of W., was this:

"The job, as Cannon and Hoffman described it, was "to make Reagan recognize that his most cherished goals could not be reconciled"--not with each other and not with external realities."

What a quaint thing for advisers to a Republican president to do.

Posted by: consid24 | March 1, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

January 1982 was the midst of the Volcker Recession (1981-1982)where Fed Chair Paul Volcker decided to put a break on Stagflation and slammed interest rates into double digits. While he managed to arrest a decade of nasty double-digit inflation, the Recession was the deepest post-war recession until the 2008 Recession we are recovering from.

Both Reagan and Obama were elected largely because of the poor economic performance of their predecessors, although Carter hardly fared worse than Nixon and Ford. Both are being blamed for not fixing things fast enough, as if the White House has the magic to cure the largest economy in the world by itself.

The 1982 election did give Democrats 27 House seats and 1 Senate seat, but did not change the balance of power in Washington. I predict that while Republicans will pick up seats, these screams that they will control the Hill next January are as far fetched as Mondale's 13 point lead over Reagan in 1982. Remember that Mondale only won 13 electoral votes 2 years later, and Clinton coasted to re-election in 1996. Bush, on the other hand, picked up seats in 2002 and barely squeaked by in 2004, only to see his Presidency fall apart in 2005 because of his own missteps on Social Security and Katrina.

Posted by: AxelDC | March 1, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

AxelDC, don't forget that 2005 was also a horrible year in Iraq.

And I agree that while Republicans picking up seats is possible, likely even, taking majorities in either house would be surprising. Majorities in both houses seems far-fetched.

Posted by: MosBen | March 1, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

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