Winning the White House? History's Against Them.

By Samuel L. Popkin and Henry A. Kim
Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Democrats' road to the White House in 2008 runs through Congress, and it is uphill all the way. The last time either party captured the White House two years after wresting control of both House and Senate in midterm elections was in 1920. Democrats who think that it is their turn to expand their pet programs and please their core constituencies have forgotten how quickly congressional heavy-handedness can revive the president's party.

Right now, President Bush is a lame duck and an albatross. His approval ratings are in the 30s, the GOP has splintered, the economy is sputtering and the public believes that the Iraq war is hopeless.

However, such troubles are not unusual for a president whose party has just lost control of Congress.

It is far too soon to count the Republicans out -- or even bet against them. At this point in 1995, President Bill Clinton trailed Bob Dole in polls, and only 55 percent of Democrats even wanted him to run for a second term. The parties that lost control of one or both houses in 1994, 1986, 1954 and 1946 all won the White House two years later.

Early in 1987, to pick a powerful recent example, the Republicans' prospects looked even bleaker than they do today. Democrats had just recaptured the Senate and retained the House, and polls showed that the public had more confidence in them than in the Reagan administration to reduce the federal deficit. The Iran-contra hearings investigating the secret sale of arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages and the funneling of the profits to the Nicaraguan contras were the big story, and looked ominous enough to derail Vice President George H.W. Bush's White House aspirations. Then in 1988, Bush handily dispatched Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic nominee.

But this wasn't a new story. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman was lower in the polls after his midterm defeat than were George W. Bush, Clinton or Ronald Reagan after their midterm losses. Truman was reelected in 1948.

Presidential parties have also done well in the legislative battles that have followed every midterm takeover since World War II. Presidents and their parties recover after midterm wipeouts because, as Clinton had to remind people in 1995, "The Constitution makes me relevant."

The president's party begins to recover when he wields his veto pen -- especially if he can establish his relevance as a defender of the center against the other party's excesses.

Each time since 1948 that one party has retaken one or more houses of Congress and then two years later lost the race for the White House, that party has scapegoated its candidate for the party's sins. But in each case, the congressional party placed onerous burdens on the candidates. Would Truman have won without the "do-nothing Congress" to run against in 1948? Would anyone have known about the Dukakis-Willie Horton episode if the congressional Democrats had produced a defensible record on crime in 1988? Or if Democrats hadn't pushed for a welfare bill that looked "soft on work," would "tax and spend" have been such a powerful epithet in 1988?

The 2008 Democratic nominee is likely to be a current or former senator. That makes the legislative record of the next two years even more important to winning the White House. No clever slogans can help a candidate overcome legislative excess and partisan overkill.

Democrats cannot overplay their hand the way Republicans did in 1995 after taking both houses and Democrats did in 1987 after taking the Senate. To win the presidency, Democrats must use their control of the legislative agenda to keep Republicans divided and build a unifying record for 2008. This means:

ยท Don't let fast money outrun moderate voters.

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