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Bush, Like Clinton, Presiding Over the Decline of His Party

With the National Governors Association winter meeting set to begin later this week and the 2008 presidential race continuing to simmer, it seems an appropriate time to look at how both former President Bill Clinton and President Bush presided over a significant decline in their own parties’ downballot fortunes. [IMGCAP(1)]

Granted, the parallels aren’t exact. For Clinton, the biggest drop in gubernatorial, legislative and Congressional seats came in 1994, two years after he was elected, whereas for Bush, it came after six years in office. And generally speaking, the declines in Democratic downballot strength under Clinton were steeper than those the Republicans have suffered under Bush (though if the trends from 2006 continue, the GOP could cumulatively be looking at Clinton-scale losses two years from now).

Still, despite the shadings of difference, it’s hard to ignore the similarities.

After six years of Clinton, the Democratic Party claimed 13 fewer governorships than it had at the start of his presidency, seven fewer state Houses and five fewer state Senates — not to mention 47 fewer Democrats in the House and 12 fewer Democrats in the Senate.

Republicans now hold seven fewer governorships, five fewer state Senates and two fewer state Houses than they did when Bush took office, as well as 19 fewer House seats and one less Senate seat.

Six-year totals are the only appropriate way to measure Bush against Clinton. However, every metric discussed here also declined under Clinton during his full, eight-year run, and for some offices, the declines actually accelerated.

Of course, this unraveling of party fortunes is not entirely the fault of the men at the top of the ticket. Sooner or later, ancestrally Democratic rural conservatives, particularly those in the South, were going to become Republicans, whether that shift came in 1994 or later. Similarly, moderate suburbanites in Northeastern states seem destined to abandon their long-standing GOP habits.

In addition, downballot erosion during two-term presidencies is a well-established feature where Congress is concerned. For instance, former President Ronald Reagan lost eight Senate seats and 15 House seats in his first six years in office. If their consecutive terms are taken as one, former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford lost five Senate seats and 48 House seats. Former Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, measured the same way, held steady in the Senate but lost 14 House seats in six years. And former President Dwight Eisenhower lost 14 Senate seats and 68 House seats over his first six years.

The number of GOP governors serving alongside Nixon after his first inauguration in 1969 was 31. By 1975 — the year after what would have been his second midterm election, had he not resigned — the number of Republican governors had plummeted to 13.

Even Reagan saw the number of GOP governors drop by seven on the eve of his second midterm election in 1986; he avoided the same fate as other presidents only because Republicans surged in gubernatorial elections in 1986, gaining a net of eight seats.

“Governors and legislators fall victim to diminished base turnout in nonpresidential years,” said Republican strategist Patrick Davis. “I think you could surmise that the president’s popularity, or lack of it, impacts his ability to motivate voters beyond the party activists to vote for ‘his’ candidates.”

History aside, the larger-than-life personas of both Clinton and Bush — and their polarizing effect on the electorate — almost certainly contributed to their party’s downballot decline.

The big Democratic losses of 1994 are widely attributed to frustration over the shortcomings of Clinton’s first two years in office, from the controversy over gays in the military to his failure to enact health care reform. Later, the Monica Lewinsky scandal made Clinton an imperfect role model for his party. Clinton’s push to stave off impeachment, while ultimately doing his GOP pursuers significant damage, likely prevented the White House from undertaking the kinds of efforts that could have aided Democrats running for lower office.

Bush-era Republicans, for their part, survived the 2002 and 2004 elections in better shape than the Clinton-era Democrats did in 1994 and 1996, but the chickens came home to roost in 2006. Much like the Lewinsky scandal for Clinton, the Iraq War sucked the air out of Bush’s second term. As was the case with Democrats after 1994, Republicans chose to run away from their leader last year.

Both Clinton and Bush also benefited from, and were burdened by, having unified control of Congress and the executive branch — Clinton for two years and Bush for the better part of six. Unified control tends to raise expectations — and makes it easier to pin blame when the public mood sours.

In recent years, said George Mason University political scientist Michael McDonald, political polarization has meant a heightened nationalization of downballot elections. That means that downballot offices are more vulnerable to national swings.

“I don’t think it is a coincidence that these two large swings were against the president’s party, since centrist voters tend to like divided government,” he said.

“These two-term presidents are often caught in some scandal which becomes a distraction,” added Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and Roll Call contributing writer. “In Clinton’s case, it was a steady drumbeat of scandals brewing, and then came Monica. With Bush, it’s the war,” as well as the scandals surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and imprisoned ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

In other words, Clinton and Bush had to face extended periods in office when they needed to focus on their own political survival, rather than on aiding their party. And that had to hurt further down the ballot.

“Presidential campaigning in 1992 for Clinton and in 2000 for Bush was largely driven by a ‘clean, new message,’ and it followed that downballot candidates benefited,” said one Republican strategist. “In subsequent years, the agenda of the national party dominated discussion, and like it or not, Members of Congress, governors and legislators were seen as somewhat beholden to those national agendas.”

Some political experts, however, caution against drawing overly broad conclusions from the data.

Bernadette Budde, senior vice president of the Business Industry Political Action Committee, evokes the old Buffalo Springfield song that goes, “There’s somethin’ happenin’ here/What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

“I wouldn’t try too hard to quantify or figure out the ‘what,’” Budde said. “We know that ‘churning’ at one level affects all other levels of the ballot, even if there is some lag. Voter dissatisfaction takes a while to rumble through the system.”

For this reason, she said, BIPAC prefers to use the metaphor of an earthquake rather than a wave for changes like those that took hold in the 2006 election cycle.

“The evolution of what voters want continues, even if the electorate can’t quite define the solutions to problems vexing their lives,” she said. “Everyone elected in 2006 still sits atop an active fault line. Shifting tectonic plates have altered the political map, and when the earth stops moving, nothing will ever look the same.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Down on the Farm” will return next Tuesday.

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