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Explaining Barack Obama's Terrible Political Summer

Now that Labor Day is behind us, the most remarkable thing about this midterm election is how little has changed since Memorial Day. In the closest and most crucial contest, for control of the U.S. Senate, only the race in Kansas looks fundamentally different than it did three months ago. Strategists in both parties have been asking, "What's the matter with Kansas?" The Democratic nominee's sudden decision to withdraw from the race this week will make it more competitive. Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who sustained some damage in his primary, will now face independent candidate Greg Orman. Orman has the backing of some of the moderate GOP leaders in the state. But that's the only major change of the summer, despite more than a billion dollars already spent in what the experts at Kantar Media/CMAG estimate will end up being $5.5 billion to $6.5 billion in total campaign expenditures on all levels this election cycle.

One question has become more pressing as Election Day nears: Where is the Republican wave? For Democrats, the good news is that there doesn't appear to be an overwhelming Republican tide this year; the bad news is ...

Why Incumbents Shouldn't Feel Safe

Relatively few members of Congress have lost primaries this year, and so far, no senators have. But that doesn't mean they feel safe.

And they shouldn't.

Notably, more members of Congress, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, are doing worse in primaries this year. By one measure, the party's incumbents have had more competitive primaries in the three even-year elections from 2010 onward than in the five such elections of the 2000s.

The tea party may not be ending many incumbents' careers this year, but the movement is clearly still potent.

A review of every congressional party primary from 2000 onward shows that relatively few incumbents faced even marginally competitive primaries from 2000 to 2008. Only 100 House incumbents out of 1,929 finished with less than 70 percent of their primary vote in those five elections, a rate of just over 5 percent every election.

But with this year's primaries still ongoing, the number of incumbents dropping below 70 percent has already reached 120 (out of 927 contests) from 2010 through 2014, a 13 percent rate. Over the past three elections, more than twice as many House incumbents per year have been bleeding ...

The Lessons of the 2010 Midterm Elections

In real estate, the three most important things are said to be "location, location, and location." In politics, it might well be "timing, timing, and timing." As we approach the 2014 midterm elections, the Senate's Democratic majority is teetering on the edge, but the House is just an afterthought, with little chance that it will change control or direction. Had it not been for the Democratic debacle in 2010, we might well be talking about an endangered Democratic majority in the House this year rather than a GOP lock.

Recall that Republicans themselves had been through punishing elections in 2006 and 2008; the GOP was in pretty awful shape heading into 2009. Conversely, the forecast for Democrats at that point looked awfully good. Then the bottom fell out for Democrats in 2009 and 2010, largely due to the drop in President Obama's job-approval numbers and the radioactivity of health care reform, and, to a lesser extent, House passage of cap-and-trade climate legislation. Unfortunately for Democrats, the reversal of fortune happened in a midterm election, when far more governorships and state legislative seats are up than in the presidential cycle. Even more important, it was the last election before ...

Blocking the Vote in Congress

A friend of mine who has been a lobbyist for years—and wants to remain anonymous so he can continue doing it a while longer—recently made the argument to me that the current Congress is not, in fact, the least productive in U.S. history. But you do have to go quite a way back: He says the Ninth Congress, from 1805 to 1807, during Thomas Jefferson's second term in office, did even less, because the government had no money left after the Louisiana Purchase. (As a Louisianan, I think it was a worthwhile investment.)

In any case, it would not be hard to fill up a five-day symposium on Washington dysfunction; heck, it wouldn't take much effort to make it a semester-long course. Some problems are unique to the House of Representatives, others to the Senate, and still more to the White House. Then, of course, there are the more-systemic problems, such as the intense partisanship that has become so prevalent in the last 30 years, infecting both chambers, tainting relationships, and making addressing big issues more difficult.

One such problem can be laid squarely at the feet of congressional leaders—specifically, those who call the ...

Disruptive Politics

Back in the mid-1990s, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen coined the phrases "disruptive technology" and "disruptive innovation" to describe certain kinds of game-changing developments in the business world. Now, in politics, we are seeing a variation on that theme.

On the left, the Occupy movement helped spawned a new populism that is reflected in rising interest in Sen. Elizabeth Warren's ideas and future, with her name increasingly being bandied about as a presidential hopeful despite her statements urging Hillary Clinton to run. Warren is fighting banks and other financial institutions in a way that is catching on much more noticeably than the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's tilting at windmills. She's recently made forays into surprising places, touting red-state Senate candidates such as Alison Lundergan Grimes, Mitch McConnell's Democratic challenger in Kentucky, and Natalie Tennant, the Democratic nominee for West Virginia's open Senate seat. Neither would want President Obama to campaign for them, but inviting a Massachusetts Democrat who is considerably more liberal—and more populist—than the president made sense to them.

This isn't just a left-wing phenomenon. Populism fueled the tea-party movement, currently personified by Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who both could ...