Is an Anti-Incumbent Wave on the Way?

What the shutdown could mean for 2014.

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A few weeks back, I argued that President Obama's foreign policy missteps on Syria provided "an opening to the Republicans to stage fiercer fights over the debt ceiling, the budget, the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform," and that these newly reenergized partisan contests could foment the necessary intensity among the public to make a "wave" in the 2014 midterm elections.

Now, here we are – with a semi-shuttered government, a looming debt ceiling and no deal in sight. While Republicans are receiving more blame than Democrats for instigating this battle, it's evident that no one is escaping the public's animosity. The latest Associated Press-GfK survey reveals that Congress' approval (5 percent) and President Obama's approval (37 percent) have hit historic lows.

Yet despite the public's increasing concern and expressed desire for compromise, neither side's partisans want their elected officials to "give ground in the budget agreement." According to Pew Research's poll, seventy-seven percent of Republicans think Obama should agree to a deal that changes the Affordable Care Act, whereas 75 percent of Democrats think Republicans in Congress should agree to a deal that doesn't change the ACA. In short, our opponents should cave.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

Taking this public frustration and partisan polarization together, it's clear that an "anti-incumbent" wave is beginning to build. This is unsurprising – the 2012 election was nothing if not a ratification of the status quo. President Obama was returned to the White House, while Democrats retained their majority in the Senate and Republicans kept their majority in the House. Incumbents prevailed; divided government persisted. And now, the belief that endorsing the status quo would create stability has crumbled.

Going forward, it's likely that the public's solution to this unacceptable situation will be to hold all incumbents accountable. But given the large number of uncompetitive seats in the House and the small number of Democratic targets, we would expect most Republican incumbents to survive. That is, if they survive what is sure to be another riotous nomination cycle involving tea partyers and anti-government libertarians taking on GOP incumbents.

An "anti-incumbent" wave would crash differently in the Senate. It would likely hit incumbent Democrats hard in places like Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, and hurt their candidates in the open seats in "red states" (West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota). It might be large enough for Republicans to win the six seats they will need to take the majority.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

While we're still more than a year from knowing how much damage will result, it's not too early for incumbents to start considering how to calm these roiling partisan waters.

Best bet: think small, not large. No grand bargain – too hard to construct. No "no negotiating" – too incendiary. Focus on incremental fiscal solutions (e.g., sequester changes or debt ceiling). Buy time. Make peace. Save face.

And try to remember that the public likes you best when they hear from you the least.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Conservatives Won't Let the GOP Out of the Government Shutdown-Obamacare Trap
  • Read Susan Milligan: Military Death Benefits, the Shutdown and the Importance of Government
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