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May 31, 2013 1:29 PM Party Like It’s 1998

By Ed Kilgore

Since we are, God help us, already into the midterm election cycle, it’s not at all premature to think about what the economic and fiscal situation might be going into November of 2014. And that’s exactly what Politico’s Ben White has undertaken in an important column based on discussions with both economists and party “strategists:”

The 2014 midterm election is shaping up as something the United States has not seen in nearly a decade: a campaign run in a strengthening economy with deficits on the decline.
No one is popping champagne corks yet, and risks remain. But the altered terrain, if it holds, could benefit Democrats and challenge Republicans whose rise to power in the House in 2010 came via a tea party movement that blasted President Barack Obama and his party for ignoring a stagnant economy and piling up an endless run of trillion dollar deficits.
Times have changed since 2010. Barring a fresh crisis — and there are certainly a few that could arise — many economists expect growth to return to a fairly healthy level by next year as house prices and the stock market continue to rise and the jobless rate falls closer to its historic average of 5.8 percent.
The federal deficit is around half the size it was when the tea party reached its apex, due to tax hikes, spending cuts and stronger growth.
Consumer confidence this week hit a level not seen since the financial crisis rocked the economy in 2008. And economists say there is enough time between now and when voters go to the polls next November for the improvements to actually be felt throughout the economy. Even conservative economists predict somewhat stronger growth next year, while left-leaning forecasters are borderline giddy.

As Greg Sargent points out today, this adds a new element of drama to the struggle among Republicans and conservatives over whether to rein in Scandalmania ‘13 or give in to demands from the “base” to let their freak flag fly and make the midterms a referendum on their “vetting” of Barack Obama and the need for radical spending and tax cuts.

It’s possible we’ll be heading into 2014 with the deficit falling and the economy improving markedly — with Republican candidates calling for more spending cuts and fulminating about Obamacare and fake scandals.

Now I’m not one of those progressive writers who has ever been especially sanguine about the possibility of Democratic gains in 2014, for the very simple reason that there are large structural impediments (mostly having to do with eternal midterm turnout patterns reinforced by gerrymandering and polarization) to that happening. But there has been exactly one second-presidential-term midterm election in American history since 1822 where the party controlling the White House did make gains. And it was at a time when a growing economy and falling budget deficits made an opposition obsessed with scandals, personal attacks on the president, and demands to shrink government, look particularly out-of-touch: 1998.

We’re hardly there yet, but even though elephants are supposed to have long memories, it’s sometimes hard for them to exert self-control in mid-stampede. If they can’t, they may manage to thread the needle and deal themselves a most unlikely defeat for the second time in 16 years.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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