Saturday, August 2, 2014

Jeff Greenfield Scratches His Six-Year Itch


While reading Jeff Greenfield's latest piece on the upcoming midterm elections - spoiler alert, Greenfield doesn't think it's going to go well for Democrats - I couldn't help but wonder just what planet he's been living on for the last few months.

Yes, Greenfield correctly points out that most two-term presidents lose seats in their sixth year. In fact, the only president to actually gain seats over the last five decades was Bill Clinton, a fact Greenfield mentions but then glosses over like some footnote. More on the Clinton exception later. For now, let's concentrate on Greenfield.

Most of the piece focuses on two central themes: 1. Contrasting Obama's approval ratings with that of Ronald Reagan's in 1986; and 2. Something about the public mood being grim.

Going into his second midterm, Reagan's approval numbers were indeed high, much higher than Obama's, yet Republicans still managed to lose five House seats and seven Senate seats. Conclusion? Democrats are going to get pummeled in November.

There's of course just one little teensy problem with Greenfield's analysis. Actually there are two. The first is that Obama's poll numbers are far more affected by geography than Reagan's. In the South, for example, Obama is far less popular than he is in either the northern or western part of the country. Not coincidentally, those are the areas where incumbent Democrats are having the hardest time defending their seats. Both Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor in Arkansas are trailing their respective Republican challengers, though Landrieu is managing to hold her own. Conversely, the three states Greenfield cites as being in danger of flipping - North Carolina, Michigan and Colorado - are actually projected by RCP to remain in the Blue column this fall. If you're going to take the time to sound the warning bell, Jeff, the very least you can do is get your states right.

But Greenfield's second problem is far more egregious and ironically it concerns this whole public mood theme. As low as Obama's approval rating may be, the GOP's is considerably worse. In states like Florida and Pennsylvania, the incumbent Republican governors are trailing their Democratic opponents. The race is so lopsided in Pennsylvania, RCP has now put it in the "Likely Democrat" column. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker is holding on by his finger nails. The public may not be in love with Obama, but they certainly have no love loss for the GOP.

And that brings us back to Bill Clinton and 1998. Republicans, if you recall, impeached Clinton over the Monica Lewinski scandal. While it is true that the actual impeachment vote took place after the midterms, the issue was front and center in the minds of many voters way before November. The results did not bode well for the GOP. Overplaying their hand backfired terribly on them.

The recent party-line vote in the House of Representatives to sue Obama over delaying implementation of the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act - a law that very same chamber tried to repeal more than 50 times! - smacks of déjà vu all over again. Once more, Republicans are mollifying their base and badly overplaying their hand. And, once more, it appears to be backfiring on them. Democrats have now been given a wedge issue to use against the GOP this fall that they would not have had otherwise. Can you imagine the fallout if Republicans actually go ahead and impeach Obama? Talk about the political equivalent of a wet dream.

While it is still too early to tell whether the GOP will once more snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, this much is certain. Sloppy journalists like Jeff Greenfield will continue to pontificate and espouse their opinions like they were gospel, only to have their ignorance exposed in the end.

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