The Washington Times

Generally speaking, elections are about comparative judgments. It’s not so much a matter of “What do you think of Mr. A?” and “What do you think of Mrs. B?” It’s “What do you think of Mr. A compared to Mrs. B?” Whom do you choose between the two?     

This fact has spelled political survival for many a candidate in trouble. Because even if the answer to the question of what you think of Mr. A is “not much,” compared to Mrs. B, Mr. A may not look so bad. I’m reminded of a story I heard about Alfonse D’Amato’s successful primary challenge in 1980 against New York Republican Sen. Jacob Javits. Mr. D’Amato attacked the much beloved Mr. Javits for being, well, old and infirm. It worked like a charm. The story goes that on primary election night as the returns came in, Arthur Finkelstein, Mr. D’Amato’s political guru (Mr. D’Amato’s term) turned to him and said, “The good news is you won. The bad news is that everybody hates you.”   

Mr. D’Amato could live with that, and he twice won uphill re-election battles not because he was beloved in New York state but because he understood that getting elected wasn’t just about himself but the comparison between him and his opponent.    

The party in control of the White House usually loses seats in Congress in the sixth year of a presidency. This is generally attributed to growing fatigue with and accumulated grievances against the sitting president. I think that’s right. But there was a very important anomaly in 1998. Republicans actually lost seats that year, and the surprising defeat was enough to knock Newt Gingrich out of his position as House speaker. What to make of this exception to the sixth-year rule? And since the number of presidencies that actually make it to a sixth year is not that large, you had to wonder in light of 1998 whether the rule was really a valid generalization or had more to do with the small number of instances to tally up.     

I think the rule is valid, and I think 1998 is the exception that proves it. In 2006, Democrats ran hard against George W. Bush. They plastered his face next to Republican candidates for the House, Senate, governor’s mansion and dog-catcher, hoping his low job-approval rating would rub off on the GOP candidate.     

Evidently, it worked. On the other hand, this is not the first time Democrats have tried to personalize their message around an unpopular Republican figure. Starting in 1996, the poster child was Newt Gingrich, and this continued, really, through the 2000 election, which is to say until one election past Mr. Gingrich’s departure from office. And Democrats have tried this tack before against Mr. Bush, in the 2004 election. Why didn’t the personalization strategy work before, why did it work now and why didn’t it work for Republicans seeking to tar Democrats with Bill Clinton’s scandals in 1998?    

Mr. Bush’s political fortunes have indeed declined since 2004. On the other hand, he wasn’t looking so hot for re-election in early 2004, either. But what he had going for him in countering the personalization of the election around his unpopular incumbent self was Sen. John Kerry, his opponent. Mr. Bush was able to substitute a question of comparative judgment for the question of what people thought about him.

In 2006, there was no way for Mr. Bush to turn the questions and doubts about him into a comparative question. He wasn’t running against anyone. Meanwhile, of course, Republican candidates being tarred with the Bush brush are not going to spend their time countering attacks on Mr. Bush. They’re going to keep running against their actual opponent. So in effect, the unpopularity of Mr. Bush (or any sixth-year president) goes unchallenged and uncountered, and so it does indeed rub off on candidates from his party.    

The difference in 1998 was this: Mr. Clinton was indeed running for something: dear life; and against something (if not someone): the attempt to remove him from office. As his Monica Lewinsky scandal metastasized into independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s Sept. 9 referral to the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Clinton had no intention of sitting idly by while Republicans impeached him. If the GOP racked up the typical gains of the sixth year of a presidency as expected, especially with all the talk of impeachment in the air, his position would be seriously damaged. So he and his Democratic operatives mounted a sustained media campaign: Who do you like, Mr. Clinton or the Republicans trying to remove him from office. The switch to a comparative question was unprecedented, and it accounts, I think, for the anomalous results.

Are there lessons here for future presidents facing the sixth-year itch? Maybe what you really need is a multimillion dollar investment in advertising aimed at boosting the popularity of someone who isn’t even on the ballot and never again will be: the president. Targeting resources in such a fashion would be likewise unprecedented. The question is whether anything else short of a credible impeachment threat will work to stave off sixth-year losses.