Unforced Errors and the Mirage of Popularity

For congressional Republicans, the election can’t come soon enough. In the modern era, it’s hard to think of a time when the party out of power had more things going its way. Harry Enten, CNN’s political data analyst, recently noted that going by the generic ballot, things haven’t looked this good for Republicans to pick up House seats in the midterms since 1938. Since 1980, the party of the president in power has lost an average of 22 seats in the midterms. Republicans need only nine to win the majority.

Of course, Republicans think this means they’re doing something right. But if recent history is any guide, you can be sure that once elected, Republicans will blow it.

For decades now, our national politics have been caught in a bizarre pattern. The party in power governs as if it were about to lose power, so it shoots the moon on big ambitious, base-pleasing gambits that annoy the center and make its own electoral defeat all the more likely. The other party then wins and comes in believing it has a broad mandate for similarly sweeping changes from the other ideological direction. This, in turn, leads it to being thrown out of power. The cycle repeats itself in a pas de deux of self-fulfilling prophecy.

One key to this dynamic is the delusion that the party-in-power’s unpopularity is synonymous with the opposing party’s popularity. But that’s an illusion, created in part by the two-party system. If you have a menu that only offers snails or tofu entrees, it doesn’t mean that diners love tofu every time they get tired of snails.

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