John Judis' Weak Defense.

At The New Republic, John Judis today offers a lengthy “Response to My Critics” -- those of us who challenged his hyperbolic account of the president’s “Unnecessary Fall.” While I’m one of four critics he links to, Judis barely touches the points in my “Tale of Three Presidencies,” which mainly concerned his failed attempt to show that Obama’s pattern of sagging support looked more like Jimmy Carter’s fatal fall than like Ronald Reagan’s short-term drop during the severe recession of 1982.

On Reagan, both Brendan Nyhan and I had pointed out that Judis’ claims that the public had greater confidence in Reagan’s ability to turn the economy around than they do in Obama’s, and that Democrats would do better in November “if Obama could command [Reagan’s] numbers” were not supported by evidence. In fact, with one exception, Obama’s ratings on the economy are comparable to or better than Reagan’s. And Reagan’s party got creamed in the 1982 elections.

Judis responds that, by losing only 27 seats in the House, Republicans did better than expected, citing political scientist Edward Tufte’s prediction that they would lose 40 seats. But Tufte’s 1982 prediction, based on a rudimentary economic model and no analysis of individual races, was a first test of his “referendum theory” of midterm elections, which has since been refined by other political scientists and even those refined models are notoriously inaccurate at predicting midterms. And it’s important to note that Republicans were a minority in the House going into the elections, with only 192 seats, which means they would have had far fewer vulnerable, swing-district seats than a majority would have. To lose 40 seats from a baseline of 192 would be almost impossible – as a percentage, bigger than the 1994 Democratic loss. There’s really no way to dress up Reagan’s second year: The economy stank, he didn’t have a clear message, he became unpopular, and voters didn’t think he was a strong leader. When the economy improved, so did his standing.

Judis also shifts his argument. Now it’s that, if Democrats lose control of the House, “they are not going to be able to meet the challenges” of the economy.  No kidding! Speaker John Boehner is not the cure the economy needs. But Judis is not comparing Obama to Reagan anymore – rather, it’s the stale point that if Obama were more like FDR, he’d expand his majority in the midterm. Well, maybe. And if he were a foot taller, he could be Shaquille O’Neal. But he’s not, and it’s not 1934. Populist language is not going to change the fact that presidents not named Franklin Delano Roosevelt lose seats in their first midterm.

On likening Obama’s productive presidency so far to Carter’s debacle, Judis again dodges and claims it was only “a metaphor or simile” akin to Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn,” and not to be taken literally. My mistake, I guess I didn’t realize I was reading the epic-poem section of TNR. All he meant, Judis says now, is that “there is a line of descent from Carter to Dukakis to Gore to Kerry to Obama, all of whom had difficulty framing their message in populist terms.”

That line of non-populist descent, then, includes all of the Democratic nominees for the last 35 years, winners and losers, with two exceptions: Walter Mondale and Bill Clinton. Mondale was sort of a populist but got crushed, whereas Clinton, who won, was sometimes capable of soft-populist language as a candidate (“Putting People First” in 1992) but wasn’t seen that way during most of his presidency. It’s also worth noting that of the two non-populist winners, the coalitions that put Carter and Obama in office were totally different, as the electoral maps show. (One could also easily reshuffle this deck to label Carter a populist and praise Gore's use of populist language in 2000, as Judis himself did in this magazine in 2002, while putting D.C.-insider Mondale outside the charmed circle. My point is just that "populist" seems to be a slippery and subjective label.)

This game of metaphors is tiresome. Obama has by now been compared to almost every president except for William Henry Harrison, and also to every losing Democratic nominee (I well remember the "he's another Adlai Stevenson" craze of early 2008), which would make more sense if he had, you know, lost. Obama’s not Carter, just as he’s not FDR, and 2010 is neither 1978 nor 1934. The president has a huge challenge ahead of him, his talents are not limitless, and American politics has thrown up some roadblocks we haven’t seen before. Writing off his presidency at this point based on silly similes doesn’t help to figure out any of these challenges.

-- Mark Schmitt

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