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How Is Losing the White House Winning?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Seriously, Larry Sabato? The political scientist argues this week in Politico that perhaps parties would be better off losing the presidency, given that it is a safe bet they will lose seats (in Congress, in state legislatures, in gubernatorial elections) once they’re in the White House.

To begin, Sabato’s accounting is screwy. He looks only at the subsequent national elections, both midterms and presidential elections, but omits the one in which the president was elected in the first place.

So, yes, Republicans went from 53 senators at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency to only 45 after the 1988 election, but that still left them with four more than the 41 Republican senators they had before the 1980 election. Given that there’s no way to lose the presidential election but still succeed down the ballot, it seems silly to say that winning the presidency is bad overall for parties.

Even if the point of winning is just to win, it counts for a lot to hold the White House. Look at it in terms of jobs: There are many at stake in the presidentially appointed spots in the executive branch and the judiciary. So many that a party that was purely a coalition of job-seekers would probably be willing to trade quite a number of other losses to keep eight years in the White House.

After all, those who lose re-election to lower offices potentially have executive-branch jobs to fall back on. They will also be worth more as lobbyists if their party holds the presidency.

Parties are also coalitions intent on extracting concessions on policies from the government. It matters if they succeed. Future electoral losses matter only to the extent they undermine those policy gains.

So passage of the Affordable Care Act, fulfilling to a large extent the Democrats' main goal of the last 40 or so years, goes a long way by itself in making Barack Obama’s presidency “worth it” for them no matter how much of a battering they took in 2010 and 2014. There have been other big gains -- on immigration, climate and marriage equality -- as well as small victories that haven't made much national news.

Yes, winning the presidency normally entails future electoral losses. But this hardly means a party shouldn’t be “quite so gung-ho about winning the White House.” The parties are right to make it their highest goal. 

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