It’s a familiar tale. After eight years of holding the White House, the in-party is exhausting itself. The 22nd amendment creates an open seat election.
The out-party nominates a pop-culture-friendly candidate of Hope and Change. Maybe the candidate is actually from a town called Hope. Maybe he just has an assistant named Hope. But there’s Hope, with the promise of Change.
The promises themselves are not serious, not even a little bit. The sea level will change. The post-industrial economy will reverse. Americans will put aside their partisanship and realize that we are all part of one great nation.
That the promises are ridiculous really doesn’t matter. The out-party candidate is a “blank slate” upon which people project their own preferences. He is to be taken “seriously, but not literally.”
The economy is not great. Our foreign policy isn’t great. People are tired of the war. The incumbent president didn’t deliver on enough Change for swing voters.
The out-party candidate wins the election. The out-party even controls Congress.
The out-party becomes the in-party.
The new president drops the unity talk almost immediately after being inaugurated. “I won,” he will say. “Look at my big, beautiful Electoral College victory. It’s the biggest ever.”
He swiftly moves to undo many of the prior president’s executive orders and regulations. Members of the new in-party are jazzed with these mostly temporary displays of executive power. The new president, having a Congressional majority, prioritizes a partisan agenda.
Meanwhile, the members of the new out-party rage. Some faction of the out-party forms a movement to resist the new administration, which they see as pursuing a tyranny of the majority. They protest. They march. They wear odd costumes. They pressure the Congressional minority to maintain lockstep opposition. The in-party mocks them as oddballs and extremists determined to deny the new president a chance at success.
The new in-party’s agenda is not wildly popular and not easy to enact. The president’s job approval numbers decline. The out-party’s standing on the generic Congressional ballot improves, as does its ability to recruit quality candidates. The in-party suffers some key retirements in Congress.
There are special elections and off-year elections. The in-party manages to withstand challenges from an enthused opposition where the territory is traditionally friendly. But then come those elections on neutral to trending unfriendly territory. The in-party is handed some humiliating defeats.
The in-party downplays these defeats and more significantly the fundamentals behind them. They deny the losses could be a referendum on the new president or the in-party’s agenda. Much of the media friendly to the in-party sugarcoats the bitter pills; to warn their audience of the possible wave to come would be both futile and unprofitable.
Nevertheless, these losses increase the pressure on the in-party in Congress to pass something — popularity, policy and procedure being quite beside the point. At this point, a purely partisan success beats a failure that might lose the donors and grassroots alike. The in-party convinces itself that people will grow to like the new law, whatever it is.
Congress ultimately produces a mixed record. Some big bills pass, some fail. It doesn’t matter. The successes fuel the the out-party’s fury; the failures fuel the out-party’s confidence.
As the midterms grow closer, the in-party finally becomes nervous. The new president assures them that this time, things will be different. After all, he’s the president now.
It’s a familiar tale, one that usually ends badly. But this time, things will be different, right?
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