The Big Idea

May the Best Man Lose

Should anyone want to win the November election?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

With the 2006 midterm elections less than two months away, a growing number of Republicans are desperately hoping that their party will … get its head handed back on a plate. The fashionable conservative theory of the moment is that Republicans would be better off losing control of the House, maybe even the Senate, too—and perhaps even the White House in 2008 while they’re at it.

There is no comparable whooping for defeat on the other side. Democrats universally hold to the prosaic, uncontorted position that it would be good for them to win control of Congress in November and bad for them to lose.

As a matter of political logic, both sides cannot be right. Party politics being a zero-sum affair, game theory dictates that if Republicans are better off losing the next election, Democrats cannot be better off winning it. If the conservative theory is correct, the election should be a race to the bottom.

It is possible that the Republican defeatists are merely offering in advance a rationalization for a loss they expect in November, even if the latest polls and Slate’s mathematician offer some encouragement for them to think they’ll retain control of the House. And some Republicans—including several who contributed to a forum in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly—are primarily making a substantive point about how the GOP has abandoned its principles. They argue that Republicans, who have controlled the House since the 1994 Gingrich revolution, need to be punished for their corruption and pork-barrel excess. Out of power, some principled conservatives hope, their party might learn to stand for something again.

But to several other conservative analysts, the case for defeat is explicitly political. National Review writers Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru, among others, think Republicans really would win strategically by losing this election (or, if you prefer, lose by winning it). These conservatives tend to fixate on how popular Republicans would be fighting off lefty hate-figures, including would-be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and the putative committee chairmen John Conyers, Charles Rangel, and Alcee Hastings. (It is entirely coincidental that three of the GOP’s four favorite bogeymen are black.) Strategically minded Republicans expect that soon after assuming power, the Democrats would launch a partisan jihad against President Bush, and that the hearings and harassment would backfire. Right-wingers also hope Democrats will initiate impeachment proceedings against George W. Bush, repeating the very mistake Republicans made with Bill Clinton in 1998.

None of this conservative contrarianism seems to have infected the other side. At the moment, there are no Democrats calling for anything other than a resounding victory. There may be some buried urge for a strategic setback in Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean’s “50-state” theory, whereby the party invests its resources to build up long-term organizational strength in places it can’t win in 2006. Dean has been battling over this strategy with Rep. Rahm Emmanuel and Sen. Charles Schumer, who are leading Democratic efforts to reclaim the House and Senate, and who want the DNC to spend its money on get-out-the-vote efforts, the way the more rational Republican National Committee does. But in fairness to Dean, defeat is merely the likely outcome of his plan, not its actual object.

Still, there are reasons why the Democrats might be better off denying Republicans the defeat they crave in November. For the Democrats to win the House this year would offer the unappealing prospect of responsibility without power. With a slim majority in the next Congress, Democrats wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything significant. The party would still lack the votes to pass health-care reform or to repeal the Bush tax cuts. But with control of even one chamber by one vote, the failure to act on such issues would now be their fault as well. Iraq and the fiscal mess would no longer be just Bush’s problems. The Democratic Party will have a much clearer story line heading into the 2008 election if it is simply the party out of power and can call for a complete change.

But if defeat would serve Democrats’ longer-range success in this way, why aren’t party leaders at least ambivalent about what happens in November? The answer is partly that the interests of individual Democratic leaders diverge from that of the party as a whole. Rahm Emmanuel’s political future now depends on whether he can deliver the House. Nancy Pelosi wants to be the first woman in the speaker’s chair. Ranking Democrats on the committees hanker for the laurels and perquisites of chairmen. The rank and file want to throw off their chains. For all of them, the issues are primarily career and quality of life, not the party’s presidential prospects. What’s more, there is no real way, practically or psychologically, that any genuine politician can ever aim for anything other than victory. To attempt to throw the game would be a betrayal of one’s colleagues, one’s supporters, and one’s words. It could also horribly misfire by producing a major defeat rather than a minor one.

And there is one final argument that scotches any theory that Democrats should be glad to fall short in November: The party has now gone 10 years without a big win. It desperately needs a victory to prove to the country that it’s not a perpetual loser and to convince itself of the same thing. Democrats need traction and momentum much more than they need a simple argument to make heading into the 2008 election. Boring though it may be to say, the real winner in the November election will be the winner.