“The Second-Term Jinx:  Bush, Iraq, and the 2006 Elections”

By Darrell M. West, Brown University


It is common for the party controlling the presidency to have major problems in the second term.  This so-called jinx afflicted Dwight Eisenhower (major seat losses), John Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam), Richard Nixon (Watergate), Ronald Reagan (Iran Contra), and Bill Clinton (impeachment).  Now you can add the name of George W. Bush to this ignoble list. 

            Democratic gains in the 2006 elections have transformed the political landscape and altered the future outlook for the Bush presidency.  In this report, I examine the 2006 election results.  I compare the midterm losses to past years, explain why all politics is not local, and note that it is not always the economy stupid.  I conclude by discussing the ramifications of this campaign for Bush and the Iraq war. 


The Midterm Curse Is Real


            Midterm elections present a risk for any  American president.  As shown below, the largest House midterm losses took place in 1938 and 1942 for Franklin Roosevelt, 1946 for Harry Truman,and 1996 for Bill Clinton.  Over the last century, every in-party with the exception of Democrats in 1998 and Republicans in 2002 has lost seats in the midterm election. 

            While the last two midterms ran contrary to the historic norm, we now see that the 2006 elections represent a return to the general tendency of midterm losses for the party controlling the presidency.  With the exception of 1994, the 2006 losses were the largest in the last 30 years and allowed Democrats to regain majority control of the House of Representatives.


House Midterm Seat Losses for In-Party

1938  -71 seats (Roosevelt)

1942  -55 seats (Roosevelt)

1946  -55 seats (Truman)

1950  -29 seats (Truman)

1954  -18 seats (Eisenhower)

1958  -48 seats (Eisenhower)

1962  -4 seats (Kennedy)

1966  -47 seats (Johnson)

1970  -12 seats (Nixon)

1974  -48 seats (Nixon)

1978  -12 seats (Carter)

1982  -26 seats (Reagan)

1986  -5 seats (Reagan)

1990  -8 seats (Bush I)

1994  -52 seats (Clinton)

1998  +5 seats (Clinton)

2002  +6 seats (Bush II)

2006  -33 seats (Bush II)


All Politics Are Not Local


            This year’s election was difficult for Republicans because Democrats successfully nationalized the campaign.  Unlike many years, which focus on local concerns, federal grants and contracts brought back to the state, and the personal likeability of individual candidates, the 2006 elections centered on big national issues such as Iraq.  National exit polls found that the most important issue in this year’s election was the war in Iraq, followed by the economy, terrorism, and corruption.  Sixty-two percent of voters said they made their decision based on national issues, while only 33 percent cited local issues.

            Although Republicans sought to keep their distance from the national GOP and barely acknowledged their party ties in campaign commercials, Democrats ran openly against Bush, Iraq, and the national Republican party.  Both House and Senate candidates on the Democratic side broadcast ads showing pictures of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld.  Their strategy was to link the Republican opponent to these unpopular national figures.  Fifty-seven percent of individuals across the country disapproved of Bush’s Iraq policy.  Fifty-five percent believed the country was headed in the wrong direction.

            This strategy of nationalization allowed Democrats to disprove Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum that “all politics is local”.  When there are big issues on the national agenda, it is hard for the governing party to localize campaigns.


It’s Not the Economy Stupid


            Most American elections tend to focus on domestic economic concerns.  As typified by Clinton’s 1992 “It’s the Economy Stupid” slogan, indicators such as the unemployment, inflation, Gross Domestic Product, and personal income are highly correlated with voting behavior.  Generally, when economic conditions are good, the in-party does well and when conditions are weak, the party controlling the presidency does more poorly.

            If the 2006 elections had centered on the domestic economy, Republicans would have been in good shape.  At 2.5 percent, inflation was at historic lows.  Unemployment hovered around 4.5 percent, far lower than the double-digit rates of 1980.  Gross Domestic Product was positive.  It started the year around four percent, then dropped to around two percent in the third quarter.  Personal income numbers showed real gains in earning power after taxes and inflation.

            Fortunately for Democrats, the Iraq war trumped the economy as the central issue of the campaign.  Whereas voters were generally positive about the economy, public opinion turned sharply negative on the Bush administration’s handling of the war.  In a CBS News/New York Times survey, only 29 percent of Americans approved the way Bush was handling the war.  Seventy percent felt that the president did not have a plan to end the war.  These negative sentiments torpedoed GOP efforts to retain political control.


Money Does Not Buy Elections


            Republicans held a fundraising advantage over Democrats in the 2006 elections.  According to national figures from the Federal Election Commission, Republicans raised $435 million compared to $333 million for Democrats.  This meant that the GOP held a 23 percent fundraising advantage over their Democratic counterparts.

            This compares to the $557 to $452 million advantage that Republicans held in 2004 and the $518 to 332 million lead that the GOP maintained over Democrats in 2002.

            Sometimes, observers claim that money buys elections, but Democratic gains in 2006 demonstrate that money is not everything.  If the national political climate is hostile to the in-party, its fundraising advantages do not allow it to purchase victories.  Money is necessary to get out the vote and communicate with voters.  But it does not trump message when voters feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.


Ramifications for the Bush Presidency


            Democratic control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994 represents the beginning of the end of the Bush Presidency.  For most of his presidency, Bush has had Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

            This has allowed him to avoid hearings, scandal investigations, and public accountability for policy decisions.  Compared to the Clinton era, where there were aggressive investigations into many aspects of the president’s personal and professional life, Bush officials have had the luxury of not having to answer detailed questions.  For example, unlike the Vietnam War when there was a Fulbright Commission on the war, congressional Republicans have organized no hearings into conduct of the Iraq War.  With Democrats in charge, look for hearings into contested parts of the Bush agenda.  Democrats will initiate hearings into Iraq and the energy industry, among other issues. 

            Every president in his second term moves into “lame-duck” status that compromises his ability to get things done.   With his low job approval rating, Bush has become one of the least popular presidents in the post-World War II era.


Scenarios for Iraq Policy


            The most contentious issue for the last two years of the Bush presidency will be the Iraq war.  Democrats made gains largely based on public discontent with Iraq so this will remain a high priority for national decision-makers. 

            In order to prevent this issue from harming his party’s prospects in 2008, look for Bush to embark on a version of Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” strategy.  In that context, military tactics sought to substitute Vietnam troops for American ones and slowly withdraw American forces.  The South Vietnamese government eventually collapsed but it did so in 1974, two years after Nixon’s successful re-election.

            This type of troop substitution strategy is tricky because policymakers must avoid an all-out Iraq collapse and also avoid placing remaining American soldiers in harm’s way.  If Iraq disintegrates into mass genocide and ethnic cleaning among the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites, America faces a “Bosnia” problem that would be quite disturbing.

            In divided societies, the classic political solution to internal conflict is decentralization and regionalization.  Power is devolved to the regions and each group is allowed to dictate policy in its own area.

            The problem in Iraq is that the oil wealth is unevenly divided geographically.  If power is devolved to the Kurds in the North, the Shiites in the South, and the Sunnis around Baghdad, the Sunnis are doomed to a life of poverty because there are few oil wells within their jurisdiction.

            Effective power-sharing must involve sharing of oil resources for the internal violence to stop.  The ethnic groups will not cease fighting and killing unless they feel they are getting a reasonable share of political and economic power.  For Iraqis, the economic bases of any political settlement must prove satisfactory to each of the contending parties.


 Risks and Opportunities for 2008


            Both parties face considerable risks over the next two years.  For Democrats, the risk of pushing immediate withdrawal is that Iraq becomes another Bosnia with mass killings and violence.  If that happens, will the world turn its back on innocent victims who are slaughtered purely based on their ethnicity?

            For Republicans, if there is no withdrawal of American troops, Iraq will continue to impose huge human and financial costs on the United States.  In its current form, the war is costing at least $75 billion a year plus a large number of deaths and injuries.  If these costs continue through 2007 and 2008, it will become virtually impossible for Republicans to retain the presidency in the next election.  Both parties have a strong incentive to save Iraq in a way that does not unleash massive bloodshed.

            At a minimum, American policy needs to move toward more genuine consultation with European allies.  The time when the United States plays the “Lone Ranger” role in foreign policy is over.  We need our allies to take more responsibility for Iraq and in return must give them a share of the reconstruction money.  Unless other countries see it as within their own self-interest to help the Iraqi people, it will be impossible to settle the conflict and withdraw American troops.

            American also needs to start talking to adversaries within the Middle East.  The idea that we can avoid the two countries (Iran and Syria) that share long borders with Iraq is preposterous.  Since most of the military armaments come through these nations, there can be no political solution to Iraq without the involvement of Iran and Syria.

            The lessons of 2006 are clear.  Republicans and Democrats need to work together to solve the Iraq problem.  America also needs to work much more closely with our European allies.  Partisanship and unilateralism are no way to run American foreign policy.  It damages civic deliberation and international understanding to manage policy in this way.  Both traits undermine our nation’s ability to solve pressing international problems and complicate the country’s longterm national interests.