Democrats bound to lose some seats Midterm elections will follow a pattern

October 18, 1998|By Richard Shenkman

SO MUCH in life is unpredictable that I instinctively refrain from making predictions.

Will the stock market continue its downward trend? I don't know and refuse to guess.

Will Yeltsin finish his term? Don't know that, either.

But I can tell you with utmost certainty that this November, no matter how the public comes to feel about Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, Kenneth Starr or Bill Clinton, the Republicans are not only going to hang onto their majority in Congress, they are going to add to it.

How do I know this?

In off-year elections, the president's party almost always loses seats in the Senate and always does in the House of Representatives. An exception occurred in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, when Republicanism was synonymous with Hooverism. That year, Franklin Roosevelt increased his party's majority in the House of Representatives.

Let me put it another way, more starkly: Since the birth of the modern, two-party system 150 years ago, only once, during FDR's first term, has a president succeeded in increasing his party's membership in the House.

Pick any president you like. The story's the same.

Woodrow Wilson? During his first term, his party lost 61 seats in the off-year elections; during his second term, 26 seats. Harry Truman? 54 and 29. Dwight Eisenhower? 18 and 47. Ronald Reagan? 25 and 5.

Why should you care about this bit of history? Because the day after the Nov. 3 election, the Republican leaders of Congress will hold a news conference to announce that their clear victory over the Democrats amounts to public support for impeachment

TC proceedings against President Clinton.

Their victory, if it occurs, will not mean any such thing. In most of the races around the country, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are mentioning the Lewinsky scandal. They're concentrating on local issues, as usual. Even in those districts where the president is campaigning, the Lewinsky matter is but one of many issues the voters are taking into consideration. Unlike Watergate, this scandal does not appear to be driving local campaigns.

But because the Republican leaders have subtly framed this election as a referendum on the president, they will claim that their victory amounts to a mandate to pursue him.

Such an interpretation would be wrong. But because the public is unfamiliar with the history of off-year elections, it won't be in a position to challenge the Republicans' view.

The White House could argue that the party lost because of history, not because of Bill Clinton, but almost certainly in making that argument, the administration would appear defensive and unpersuasive.

The Democrats could lessen the impact of defeat by emphasizing, before their inevitable loss, that history is against them. This seems such an obvious strategy that one wonders why they haven't adopted it. It is, after all, the same strategy the Clinton administration has been successfully employing for the last six years: When you have bad news, get it out before the opposition does, so that you are in a position to control how it's reported.

The difficulty is that what is in the president's interest is not in his party's interest. The last thing Democrats around the country want to hear is that White House aides are saying defeat is inevitable. That could become a self-fulfiling prophecy. If Democrats think they are slated to lose, no matter what, the rank and file will stay home on Election Day. That could turn a rout into a catastrophe.

So the president and his party will keep quiet about history as they prepare in private for a defeat.

Bill Clinton has lost this election before it began. And he can't do a thing about it.

Historian Richard Shenkman is the author of "Presidential Ambition: How Presidents Gained Power and Got Things Done," scheduled for publication in January by HarperCollins.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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