Recent Comments

Label Cloud

Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Friday, March 31, 2006

Mara Liasson's "impeachment backlash"

Driving home, I heard NPR reporter and regular Fox News guest Mara Liasson offering her take on the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings about Russ Feingold's censure motion, in a segment that NPR is calling "Calls for Censure Show a Divide in Democratic Party." Now, I've had my say about this already (twice), and Liasson was, in fact, careful to say that Feingold enjoyed the support of most registered Democrats in polls. She made clear that the divide in the party came not between the "activist base" and the mainstream, but rather between Democrats and their elected representatives.

However, in the discussion about the spinelessness (my word) of Senate Democrats, Liasson said something that made me yell at the radio. "It may be," she said (I'm paraphrasing), "that the Deomcratic leadership is remembering the backlash against Republicans from the Clinton impeachment."

"Impeachment backlash?!?" I screamed at her. "What backlash?"

I don't know if there's some kind of conventional wisdom out there that says that Republicans somehow suffered mightily at the hands of an angry anti-impeachment public, but I, having lived through the period in question, certainly do not recall any moment since, oh, 1992-ish, when Republicans were not pretty firmly in power. "Backlash my foot," I thought.

But, due to a conspiracy of global proportions against me such that I can neither blog nor Google from my car, I had to wait until I got home to verify the truthiness of my gut feelings. Turns out, my gut did not steer me wrong. Despite dire predictions before the 1998 mid-terms, the election at the height of pre-impeachment fever featured no backlash at all. The House had a shift of just five seats, a small number given historical trends. The Senate changed not at all.

Well, what about the 2000 elections, after the actual impeachment itself? Good question. Turns out, looking at the same links as before (since, you know, those charts start in 1789 and go until today), you can see that Democrats gained a single seat, meaning between the time impeachment talk began until when Clinton left office, a paltry six seats changed in the House. In fact, noted Congressional elections expert (he uses footnotes!) Gary Jacobson wrote,
Most prominent among the handful of incumbents who did attract vigorous opposition were Republicans from Democratic-leaning districts who had defied the manifest wishes of a majority of their constituents by voting to impeach Clinton. Three of the four Republican incumbents who lost fell into this category: California's Brian Bilbray and James Rogan, both representing districts where Clinton had won 55 percent of the major-party vote in 1996, and Jay Dickey of Arkansas, representing a district where Clinton had won 66 percent. But Republicans as a group escaped punishment for their widely unpopular move to oust the president by the simple fact that it failed. Most voters got what they wanted--continuation of the Clinton presidency--and saw no reason to punish Republicans wholesale for the attempt. Just as good times helped Clinton to survive the impeachment process, the strong economy probably helped protect the Republicans in Congress from any impeachment backlash by encouraging public contentment with the status quo.
The senate is a slightly different story in 2000, since Republicans lost five seats. But Jacobson explains it this way:
The Democrats' gains in the Senate did not, however, reflect any national partisan trend, but rather the absence of one. Turnover is typically higher in Senate elections. On average, Senate incumbents are about three times as likely to lose as House incumbents. [. . .]

Senators run on a six-year rather than a two-year cycle, which can also lead to different patterns of competition in House and Senate races. [. . .] The 2000 Senate elections were the first test for several of the staunchly conservative Republicans who were first elected on the strong Republican tide of 1994. Three of the five Republican losers in 2000 were members of this class--John Ashcroft of Missouri, Rod Grams of Minnesota, and Spencer Abraham of Michigan. All three were burdened with images that put them well to the right of their constituents. Thus part of the reason Democrats pulled even in the Senate is that the strong Republican tide that had prevailed in 1994 was no longer running. [. . .]

Overall, twenty-four of thirty-four states cast a plurality of their votes for Senate and presidential candidates of the same party, precisely the same as in 1992 and 1996. Consistency in Senate and presidential voting has returned to the levels that prevailed in the 1950s and early 1960s, in contrast to the 1968-1988 period, when typically only about half the states were won by the same party's Senate and presidential candidates.
So, again, what backlash?

And let's not forget the reason Jacobson suggests that Republicans did not suffer backlash: Impeachment failed, meaning Clinton stayed in office, which is what the public wanted. Today, given Bush's poll numbers, I think it's pretty clear that the public wants some kind of consequences for Bush. Thinking back to those polls a couple of weeks ago, cited in my own posts about Feingold's mainstreamity linked above, there is a sizable chunk of people--Democrats, Republicans, and Independents--who want impeachment or censure. Our Democratic leadership needs to stop running from its shadow here and start, you know, leading.

There will be no backlash, only praise.

No comments: