Gephardt Bets the Farm on Election Futures

Andrew E. Busch

July 1, 2002

As the dragnet for wayward corporate executives has snared more miscreants and as the stock market has suffered accordingly, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt has declared that Democratic House gains of thirty or even forty seats are within reach. A word of advice: Don’t invest too heavily in those futures.

Before assessing Gephardt’s view, it is only fair to first examine why Democrats may indeed make some gains in November. Above all, this is a midterm election year. Since 1894, the president’s party has lost seats in the House 25 of 27 times. If you knew nothing at all about what was happening in 2002 except that it was a midterm year, it would not be unreasonable to expect Republicans to lose at least a few seats. Furthermore, both the economic and foreign policy situations are so unsettled at the moment that it is difficult to know in exactly what environment voters will be casting their ballots in early November. A total meltdown of the stock market and sudden resurgence of the recession could make Gephardt a prophet, and Speaker of the House with votes to spare. Given the closeness of the parties in the House, and the small difference that has separated them in the national House vote for the last two elections, only a relatively minor shift of voters could produce meaningful consequences.

However, at this moment, it is difficult to see how the scenario he outlined—not just Democratic gains, but huge Democratic gains–would come about. This is true for several reasons.

Because of both congressional gerrymandering and the fact that party strength is naturally concentrated in certain areas, there are relatively few seats that seem to be competitive. Indeed, most analysts argue that there are only 30-40 competitive seats in the entire United States. If this is true, for Gephardt’s prediction to be borne out, Democrats would have to win literally every seriously contested race and then some (since Democratic incumbents already serve in at least a few of those races).

While such tidal waves are not impossible—remember 1994—they can occur only when the parties find themselves on opposite sides of very salient issues. Eight years ago, those issues were Bill Clinton’s tax increase (Democrats for, Republicans against), Hillary Clinton’s health care plan (Democrats for, Republicans against), and social liberalism (Democrats for, Republicans against). For the same reason that successful prosecution of the war on terrorism will not bring Republicans huge gains-Democrats didn’t oppose it—Democrats will have more trouble than they might imagine making hay of corporate scandal. When there is a Senate vote of 97-0 on remedial legislation, when the House signs on in short order, and when the President signs it with a flourish, there is not much prospect of it becoming a wedge issue.

Similarly, attempts to affix blame may well fizzle. Most of the scandalous conduct actually began in the late 1990s, and most of the companies in question gave large sums in campaign contributions to both parties. For example, Enron’s largest single beneficiary was Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas. Gephardt himself received contributions from Enron. This contribution pattern means two things. First, at the abstract national level, Democrats do not look any better than Republicans. Second, when it comes to specific races, nothing can prevent individual Republican challengers from using old campaign contributions from dubious companies as a weapon against Democratic incumbents, even if it is the national Democratic Party that is seeking to capitalize on the issue.

Democrats may also find themselves foiled again—as they did in 2000—at the hands of their old patron, Bill Clinton. Numerous polls have shown that more Americans blame Clinton for the scandals than Bush. In this view—which, whatever its truth, does comport with the chronology of the scandals—Clinton’s conduct in the White House established a pervasive atmosphere of moral turpitude which seeped down to other layers of society. Indeed, one of the most powerful arguments raised by proponents of impeachment was that if the president were seen as "getting away with" perjury and obstruction of justice, it would have a detrimental effect on the ethical tone of society as a whole. To the extent that Americans continue to find this argument compelling, Democrats may be deprived of potential electoral gains as a result of the faustian bargain they made with Clinton in 1998-99, and indeed throughout his presidency: to benefit from your popularity, we will protect you.

Finally, if anyone doubts the ability of Republicans to compete with Democrats to define the meaning of the corporate scandals, it is important to remember that they have outraised Democrats by a substantial margin in the fundraising race; no Republican in a competitive district will lack the resources to claim credit for the legislation just passed, to point out his opponent’s transgressions, or to remind voters under whose administration the scandals began—and under whose they ended.

In light of these observations, Gephardt’s predictions have a bit of the ring of Newt Gingrich about them. In the fall of 1998, just after release of the Starr Report on the Monica Lewinsky matter, Gingrich predicted Republican gains of thirty or more House seats due to the scandal enveloping Bill Clinton. House Democrats grew uneasy for a moment, inoculated themselves by putting themselves on record supporting some form of impeachment inquiry, accused the Republicans of partisanship, and wound up breaking the midterm pattern by gaining five seats in the House. In truth, there were probably never thirty seats available for Republicans to gain. Time alone will tell if the analogy to 1998 is correct, though it more likely is than isn’t. If it is, Democrats may wind up blaming Gephardt just as Republicans blamed Gingrich in the aftermath of their 1998 fiasco. In the process, he will not have done his nascent 2004 presidential campaign any favors.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.