If you’re a Democrat, lost in a restoration fantasy of taking over the Congress next year, now is the time to dream big. Reality, with its talent for smashing the fanciful, will arrive soon enough.
Democratic pundits, trying to cheer up a home team that needs a lot of cheering up, have begun talking up “the wave,” a mysterious gathering storm of public opinion that sweeps everything before it into the Sea of Oblivion. Waves don’t happen often; the last one swept dozens of Democratic incumbents and others out to sea in 2010, when the Republicans gained a stunning 63 seats.
Nevertheless, impressionable pundits have already counted the votes for next year and say the wave is on the horizon. Salon, a web magazine, says the Republicans “may” face a massive wave. The word “may” is the favorite verb of pundits because it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s like putting the chances of something happening at “50-50.” Everything is a 50-50 proposition — either it happens, or it doesn’t. It’s a mouthful of cotton candy.
New York magazine sees beyond a wave and discerns a “tsunami.” Tsunamis are greatly beloved of pundits — but like unicorns, rarely seen. Barely a generation ago in our hemisphere no one had ever heard of one, and now pundits see them all the time.
Nevertheless, prospecting for fools’ gold is fun in Washington, where politics is on the menu at every meal, always the work of a Chinese chef, who satisfies for only 15 minutes. Donald Trump won a wave presidential election last year, carrying a Republican Congress into Washington with him, and already the great Republican wave has receded like the taste of bean sprouts in a plate of Szechuan chicken.
What makes a wave exciting is that nobody knows how it starts or whence it comes. The press claque can’t create one, though it often tries (like now). A wave grows little by little, and when it decides to come ashore nothing can stop it.
Charlie Cook of the Cook Election Report doesn’t know where a wave comes from, either, but he knows one when he sees one. “Roughly once a decade we see a tidal wave election,” he tells New York magazine, “almost always at midterm, in which an invisible hand seems to boost candidates of one party and drag down the candidates of the other. Candidates who normally win big end up winning by smaller margins. Lawmakers who usually have competitive races often get sucked away by the undertow. Districts that should be safe are no longer safe. Strong campaigns lose to weak campaigns, underfunded campaigns topple well-funded campaigns.” Such elections are no fun for anybody but whoever owns that invisible hand.
Midterm elections are always a time of hope for a party on the run. Fifteen times out of the last 17 midterm elections the party locked out of the White House has picked up congressional seats, and tries to use the made-up territory as the staging ground for a D-Day. Democrats will have to win 26 seats next year to take back the House of Representatives. That’s a lot of seats.
If the task of winning the House is daunting, Democratic prospects in the Senate are even more discouraging. They have to win “only” three seats to give Chuck Schumer a real job as majority leader instead of the whining at which he has become so accomplished, but 2018 puts 25 Democratic seats at risk, and only 9 Republican seats at risk.
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, the man in charge of the Democratic campaign to win back the House and crown Nancy Pelosi as the homecoming queen, in a fit of partisan glee told The New York Times the other day that “no district is off the table.” This is silly, and he actually knows better, because many districts, both Democratic and Republican, are “off the table.” The two parties have colluded to fix it that way. Two-thirds of the 435 districts are effectively off the table, and only 50 or so seats are regarded by both parties as competitive.
Sad, but true, and it takes something really, really yuuuuge to upset that arithmetic, and only inside the media bubble is Donald Trump likely to be that yuuuuge. His numbers are bad, but would have to get considerably badder to be yuuuge enough be catastrophic.
Politics are uniquely at the mercy of events, and it’s still true, like it or not, that man proposes and God disposes. There might be a war in the Middle East. There might be a war in Korea. There might be wars in both. The unexpected must be expected at all times.
The Democrats might get the catastrophe that becomes a winning hand. But it will have to be a big ‘un.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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