Retirements as Cause or Effect?

December 2, 2021

With news Monday that yet another House Democrat, Rep. Tom Suozzi, is declining to run for reelection, there was a new onset of shivers down the spines of Democrats on Capitol Hill. The New York member, who represents a Democratic-leaning Long Island district, is the 18th Democrat to declare that they are retiring or running for another office (in Suozzi’s case, he’s challenging Gov. Kathy Hochul in the Democratic primary). Just 11 Republicans have declared similar intentions.

Many assume that a large number of retirements can cause major political problems for a party. They’re undoubtedly right. Yet it can also be an effect—the consequence of an increasingly challenging situation for that party.

That was exactly the point when one Republican strategist crowed on Monday that Democrats are dropping like flies because they know their days in the majority are numbered and are making the wise choice to quit [rather] than face defeat next November.”

About 19 times out of 20, a party is better off with an incumbent seeking reelection than having to defend an open seat. Obviously, it matters a great deal what the district is like. A retirement in a district safely ensconced with one party is usually hardly more than an inconvenience; one in a difficult district is altogether different.

But even those in relatively safe districts may just assume that their party will lose their majority, thus losing a major incentive to stick around, even if their reelection prospects would be quite good. New York does not yet have its new congressional district lines for the next decade, but Suozzi was reelected with 56 percent of the vote and was not expected to have a particularly difficult time. His decision is telling.

Some of the pessimism among Democrats simply reflects the reality of where they stand today. The standard line is that midterm elections are little more than referenda on the incumbent president and the party in power. A more nuanced explanation is that members of a president’s party might be satisfied, but more likely are either complacent or dissatisfied, while those in the opposition party tend to be much more motivated, seeking a pound of flesh from that president and the governing party. Independents often have a bit of buyer’s remorse and are growing disappointed at this juncture, siding disproportionately with the opposition party in the midterm election.

President Biden’s approval ratings are currently averaging just 42 percent and 43 percent, respectively, in the RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight averages. His disapprovals clock in at 53 and 51 percent. Given the partisan tribalism we have today that creates high floors and low ceilings for presidents and political parties, it is unlikely that Biden’s approval ratings will drop much lower, but they are awfully low. Of the 10 newly elected presidents since the end of World War II, Gallup polling shows only Donald Trump with lower approval ratings at this stage. It is a little dramatic to say that it would take a miracle for Democrats to hold onto a House majority, but it is not a particularly dangerous assumption, either.

Things may even get worse. Democrats were probably not terribly thankful last Wednesday when the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment released its final numbers for November. As survey director Richard Curtin tersely put it, Consumers expressed less optimism in the November 2021 survey than any other time in the past decade about prospects for their own finances as well as for the overall economy. The decline was due to a combination of rapidly escalating inflation combined with the absence of federal policies that would effectively redress the inflationary damage to household budgets.” Curtin continued, “While pandemic induced supply-line shortages were the precipitating cause, the roots of inflation have grown and spread more broadly across the economy.”

The competing Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Survey numbers for November will be released Tuesday morning. Its October survey showed a slight uptick in optimism after three consecutive months of declines, but the general pattern between the two measures is very similar and not a pretty picture.

As necessary as so much of the brick-, mortar-, and broadband-focused infrastructure package that President Biden signed into law earlier this month may be, and as laudable as many provisions in the social-spending-focused reconciliation bill may be, Democrats clearly bit off more than they could chew, in a textbook case of overreach for a newly minted governing party. Whether all of this will be worth it for Democrats can be decided by historians in the future, but these consequences should not be a surprise. Expect more retirements.

The article was originally published for the National Journal on November 30, 2021.

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