- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

As far as legislative affairs go, one of the big differences between Bill Clinton in 1993 and George W. Bush in 2005 is that when Mr. Clinton asked the impossible of a Democratic Congress, he did so in a much more competitive political environment than the one in which Mr. Bush is asking the impossible of a Republican Congress.

The big tests for Mr. Clinton in 1993-94 were 1) a tax increase on upper incomes; 2) a “stimulus package” for the economy; 3) a crime bill; 4) health care reform. Grade for ambition: A-minus.

Mr. Bush will match that with 1) Social Security reform with private accounts; 2) making the first-term tax cuts permanent; 3) legal reform; 4) an overhaul of the tax code. Ambition grade: A.

Mr. Clinton had a House of Representatives with 256 Democrats and a Senate with 56. Mr. Bush has a House with 231 Republicans and a Senate with 55. As a matter of first impression, then, Mr. Clinton looks to have had a less challenging political environment for passing his legislation in his first term than Mr. Bush does in his second.

But that is not how conditions are. One of the striking things about the House of Representatives is how effective incumbents have become at protecting themselves through the drawing of congressional district lines.

The 1994 election brought an earthquake, with Republicans capturing the House for the first time in 40 years. Both Republicans and Democrats attribute the Republican Party success that year in part to party unity in opposition to Mr. Clinton’s initiatives. The lesson Democrats have taken away is that resolute opposition to Mr. Bush will serve them in similarly good stead.

Well, maybe. But in truth, the pickings for Democrats in 2006 do not look very good ” and certainly nowhere near as good as they were for Republicans in the 103rd Congress looking ahead to 1994.

Let’s begin with the obvious: The effects of census reapportionment and redistricting tend to play themselves out over the first two elections in a decade. The 1990 reapportionment and redistricting introduced a considerable amount of volatility, not only because of the allocation of more seats to regions favorable to the Republican Party, but also because of such controversial measures as the creation of “majority minority” districts. The idea behind the latter, from the point of view of Democrats, was to increase minority representation in Congress. The idea from the Republican point of view was to give them a clearer shot at suburban districts, what with African-American voters concentrated in towns. In any case, the effects of the post-1990 changes didn’t really clear the system until 1994.

The post-2000 changes, by contrast, were nowhere near so dramatic ” and are already done. As the Center for Voting and Democracy notes, “In 2002 fewer than one in 10 races were won by less than 10 percent and fewer than one in five races were won by less than 20 percent ” less than half of the number of races won by those margins in 1992.”

As a rule of thumb, the closeness of the result in the previous election is a pretty good guide to how competitive the seat will be in the next election. By my count, only 41 seats in the House were won in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote or less. Of those, 16 were held by Democrats. To the 41, you can add another 50 seats (again by my count) in which the winner claimed 56-60 percent of the vote. Which is to say, in more than three-quarters of House “races,” the challenger couldn’t crack 40 percent (if indeed there was a challenger).

The other major change (and this is of course related to, and even an explanation for, the change in the figures above) is that Mr. Clinton had on his hands a 30-some strong contingent of “Boll Weevil” Democrats ” mostly southerners far more conservative than the rest of the caucus. They are gone, their seats now held by the Republican Pary. I long ago proposed that the Republican Party counterpart be dubbed the “Cockroach” Republican ” a northern-dwelling, more urban character most comfortable operating under cover of darkness. But the truth is that Mr. Bush has far fewer Cockroaches to contend with than Mr. Clinton had Boll Weevils.

Yes, there is fear in the House GOP over social security et al. But then again, the existential condition of the politician is fear of losing. How else do we account for the fact that three-quarters of incumbents are able to get away with insisting on seats they can win with 60-plus percent of the vote, rather than allowing, say, 3-5 percentage points of their support to be allocated to a neighboring district to increase their party’s competitiveness there?

Mr. Bush’s best political argument for his agenda in the House is that the party’s position there is strong, far stronger than that of Democrats in 1993-94. It’s not just a matter of the raw numbers of seats controlled; it’s the underlying vulnerability.

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