Jonathan Bernstein’s Bloomberg Opinion piece this morning was titled “Why Can’t Republicans Win the Popular Vote?” I think this title is a bit of a silly question.
(By the way, at some point my wife referred to this style of clickbait headline — the style that utterly populates my Google feed — as “newsbait,” and now we both use that term on a regular basis. “I saw this thing in my newsbait feed the other day…” “Yeah, I saw it too. We get the same newsbait.”)
Democrats have now won the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections, something no party has done before in U.S. history. This is also their fourth consecutive popular-vote victory; the last time that happened was the party’s run from 1932 through 1948. So what should we make of that?
Well, maybe I’m just being a clueless millennial here, but isn’t it obvious what happened a-little-bit-before-1932 and again a-little-bit-before-2008 to cause ordinary people to vote Democratic for a minute? It’s often been said that “Republicans get us into recessions and Democrats get us out,” and the economic data bear out that conclusion.
Wait a minute; did I say “2008”? I meant “1992,” which was actually the first of the eight elections Bernstein is talking about, and not coincidentally the election in which the Democratic candidate used the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid!”
Bernstein goes on:
What Republicans should worry about is a more serious run of failure. Republican presidents — Donald Trump and George W. Bush — have now spent almost all of their last nine consecutive years below 50% approval. […] In other words: Whether or not Republicans have a popularity problem, they certainly seem to have a governing problem[.]
The “in other words” feels like a non-sequitur to me. Surely a sub-50% approval rating is the definition of a “popularity problem,” but doesn’t automatically imply any problem with governance. I think what Bernstein is doing here is something I’ve increasingly noticed in press coverage of the U.S. elections: the U.S. media are always super interested in the horse-race handicapping of who’s polling ahead, and super uninterested in talking about substantive policy differences — i.e., what each candidate’s victory would mean for the country as a whole. I don’t even mean, like, “what’s your foreign policy” or “what’s your position on legalizing marijuana”; I’d like to see the media recap the real basics, like “what’s the plan for stopping COVID-19” or “what’s your position on the value of NATO” or “how much would you tax people making less than $100,000 a year / more than $1,000,000 a year, and what would you do with the money.” (I think both Trump and Biden were really vocal about their differences on all of those issues. But you wouldn’t have known it from the news. It’s all been percentages and demographics and crap.)
Anyway, it seems like Bernstein has (maybe unconsciously) decided that if you poll badly in an election year, it’s a “popularity problem,” and if you poll badly in an off year, it’s a “governing problem.” But what if you poll well and still govern badly?
[…] a governing problem, one that at this point could be symbolized by Trump’s utter inability to deal with the pandemic, or by the party’s years-long attempt to dismantle the Affordable Care Act without having any alternative to offer. It is, of course, perhaps just the luck of events that dealt Republican presidents five of the last five recessions. And the Iraq War. And the coronavirus. But my suggestion to the party, if it has lost the presidency, is to spend some time trying to figure out why its presidents seem to have such a tough time in office.
Bernstein’s sarcasm here is subtle, but I’m sure it’s intentional: George Bush invaded Iraq on purpose. Donald Trump dismantled the pandemic response team and held massive unmasked rallies on purpose. These obviously weren’t the luck of the draw. Republican Presidents have lately (since, say, 1920 or so) been remarkably… problematic… at the work of governing the Union. Coolidge and Eisenhower are perhaps the exceptions. The others — Harding, Hoover, Nixon and Ford, Reagan and Bush, Bush again, and Trump — are a regular rogues’ gallery of corruption and misgovernance. Compare those names to Wilson, Roosevelt and Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama.
But this is not to say that Republicans have a governing problem. Their goal is not governance! Broadly speaking, the Democratic platform is “Government is great, let’s use government’s massive power to help the people” and the Republican platform is “Government is a zero-sum game, individualism is best.” If you give power to the latter kind of people, then yes, they might either dismantle the government or exploit it for individual gain. That’s the whole point! If you don’t want the government dismantled or exploited, you shouldn’t put that kind of person in charge.
“Having massive economic recessions during your term in office” is not synonymous with “having a tough time in office.” Again, it depends on your goal. If your goal is personal gain, then stock-market volatility is your friend. Only if your goal is effective federal governance should things like “massive economic recession” be considered “failure.” Looking back to Bush and Hoover, it seems clear to me that Republican politicians (personally) are at least as successful as Democrats; it’s just that most Democratic politicians take effective governance as a primary goal, and most Republican politicians don’t.
The Democratic Party also takes democracy as a goal; politically speaking, it’s hard to avoid that when “democratic” is right there in your party’s name. The Republican Party has much more leeway to espouse anti-democratic rhetoric and indeed anti-democratic actions.