Why Democrats Have Reason to Fear

The combination of a weak economy, disapproval of President Obama, and Syria could hurt midterm prospects.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talks with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Sept. 12, 2013, 4:05 p.m.

Mem­bers of Con­gress who were dread­ing a show­down on Cap­it­ol Hill over au­thor­iz­a­tion of an at­tack on Syr­ia have been giv­en a re­prieve. Even though the midterm elec­tions are still more than 13 months away, the specter of an at­tack, and the un­known re­per­cus­sions that could fol­low, were cer­tainly on their minds. If the United States launched cruise mis­siles to pun­ish the re­gime of Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad for us­ing chem­ic­al weapons, what would hap­pen if Syr­ia launched a re­tali­at­ory at­tack against Is­rael or oth­er U.S. in­terests in the re­gion? This had the po­ten­tial to be a big is­sue in 2014.

Al­though many law­makers had called on Pres­id­ent Obama to seek con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al for such an at­tack, they were none too happy when he punted the ball to their end of Pennsylvania Av­en­ue. The meas­ure faced an up­hill fight in the Sen­ate and looked even more doubt­ful in the House. It was a lot easi­er for mem­bers to see how they might re­gret vot­ing yes than no.

The Rus­si­an-offered solu­tion — for Syr­ia to turn over or put un­der in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol its chem­ic­al-weapons stock­pile — was an un­ex­pec­ted de­vel­op­ment, but politi­cians quickly em­braced it as an easy way to get off the hook. Even so, na­tion­al se­cur­ity ex­perts are rais­ing le­git­im­ate ques­tions about wheth­er the Rus­si­an solu­tion makes a lot of sense. Be­cause only the U.S. and Rus­sia have sig­ni­fic­ant chem­ic­al-weapons ex­pert­ise, the ob­lig­a­tion to con­trol these ma­ter­i­als will likely fall to highly trained mil­it­ary per­son­nel from these two coun­tries. The steps re­quired to take in­vent­ory, sta­bil­ize, se­cure, and pos­sibly re­move or des­troy the weapons would in­ev­it­ably be man­aged by Wash­ing­ton and Mo­scow, even if the United Na­tions were in­volved. The U.S. con­tin­gent cap­able of this sort of task could quite pos­sibly come from the Army’s Edge­wood Chem­ic­al Bio­lo­gic­al Cen­ter in Ab­er­deen, Md., or from a com­bin­a­tion of two oth­er posts in Pine Bluff, Ark., and Rock Is­land, Ill.

Even if those set to the task are wear­ing blue U.N. hel­mets, the Amer­ic­an people might be jus­ti­fi­ably skep­tic­al about send­ing U.S. mil­it­ary per­son­nel in­to Syr­ia to deal with the weapons in an en­vir­on­ment that re­quires them to co­oper­ate and trust their Rus­si­an coun­ter­parts. And, oh yes, this would all take place in the middle of a civil war. What could go wrong? Would tra­di­tion­al mil­it­ary units also be needed to pro­tect the chem­ic­al and bio­lo­gic­al war­fare ex­perts? If ci­vil­ians are be­ing gunned down nearby, are U.S. troops sup­posed to stand around and do noth­ing? Are they of­fi­cially act­ing as peace­keep­ers? A lot of tough ques­tions re­main to be asked.

For now, a con­gres­sion­al vote on Syr­ia is no longer on the dock­et, and the fo­cus will shift to fisc­al chal­lenges — namely, passing a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to avoid a gov­ern­ment shut­down on Oct. 1 and rais­ing the debt lim­it to avoid de­fault­ing on Treas­ury bonds later this fall.

Step­ping back, midterm elec­tions are, more of­ten than not, ref­er­enda on the White House oc­cu­pant. While the pres­id­ent’s name is not on the bal­lot, voters usu­ally re­gister their ap­prov­al or dis­ap­prov­al of the ad­min­is­tra­tion through their votes for Con­gress. Obama’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ings are cur­rently in the low- to mid-40s, roughly where George W. Bush’s were at this point in his second term (his later dropped as low as 31 per­cent). Obama’s dis­ap­prov­al rat­ings are run­ning just above his ap­prov­al rat­ings — nev­er a good sign — but the pres­id­ent’s num­bers are not yet ra­dio­act­ive.

The oth­er rel­ev­ant polit­ic­al ax­iom to keep in mind is that Amer­ic­ans of­ten vote their pock­et­books, based on their per­cep­tions of how the na­tion­al eco­nomy is do­ing, how they are do­ing, and wheth­er they are see­ing the eco­nomy through a hope­ful or a pess­im­ist­ic lens. The U.S. eco­nomy, as meas­ured by real gross do­mest­ic product, grew at a very healthy pace of 3.7 per­cent in the first quarter of 2012. However, for the re­main­ing three quar­ters of last year and first two quar­ters of this year, the re­cov­ery did not pro­ceed nearly as stead­ily: Growth ranged from as low as one-tenth of 1 point in the fourth quarter of last year to 2.5 per­cent in the second quarter of this year. Growth is not at the pace that you would want com­ing out of the longest, deep­est, and most dif­fuse eco­nom­ic down­turn since the Great De­pres­sion.

The con­sensus of 55 top eco­nom­ists sur­veyed by Blue Chip Eco­nom­ic In­dic­at­ors earli­er this month called for the eco­nomy to in­crease by 2.1 per­cent in the third quarter of 2013 and 2.6 per­cent in the fourth quarter, with growth gradu­ally rising to between 2.7 per­cent and 3 per­cent over the course of next year; the eco­nom­ists pro­ject un­em­ploy­ment to be at 6.8 per­cent in the fi­nal quarter of next year, some­what bet­ter than the cur­rent level.

Con­sumer con­fid­ence is a bit off its six-year high but still not re­motely near the bullish years from 1983 through 2007. So, yes, people are feel­ing bet­ter about the eco­nomy than they did dur­ing the re­ces­sion, but the num­bers still aren’t good.

A me­diocre eco­nomy is cer­tainly not an as­set for the party hold­ing the White House, but it may not be a strong drag, either. If Obama’s job rat­ings bounce around at or un­der 40 per­cent for long, Demo­crats should worry that the his­tor­ic trend of the pres­id­ent’s party los­ing ground in the House may catch up with them. But these are the typ­ic­al dy­nam­ics for a midterm elec­tion. Syr­ia would def­in­itely com­plic­ate mat­ters. 

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