Fundamentals suggest that this should be a golden moment for the Democratic Party. The first special congressional elections since President Donald Trump settled into the Oval Office have provided an evidentiary taste: In Kansas on April 11, Republican Ron Estes won by seven percentage points in a district Trump carried by 27. In Georgia on April 18, Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff stomped his nearest Republican rival, Karen Handel, 48.1–19.8 percent, in a district Trump won by a single percentage point. That race now graduates to a June 20 runoff, which is projected to be close, but Ossoff has already overperformed expectations.
The generic congressional ballot average—that is, who voters favor between a standard-issue Republican or a typical Democrat—was as of mid-April underwater for the GOP by six percentage points. If that number holds, it will mark the worst recorded January-to-June showing in the year before a midterm election for the party that controls the House of Representatives. Republicans previously polled at minus-four points in 2005 (a year before losing the House) and in 1997 (a year before Democrats gained five seats in a historic reversal of the presidential "six-year itch").
Within his first three months in office, Trump already surpassed the lowest-ever Gallup numbers of predecessors Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight Eisenhower. At their 90-day marks, all presidents from Dwight Eisenhower onward had an average approval rating of at least 55 percent; Trump's was a sickly 41 percent.
But it's the nature of contemporary American politics to confuse the routine swing of the two-party pendulum with a historic shift in national sentiment. Amazon.com's subsection for books on politics is a graveyard of such premature end-zone dancing, from 2002's The Emerging Democratic Majority by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, published just months before George W. Bush became the first-ever Republican president to see his party gain in both houses during a midterm, to Hugh Hewitt's Painting the Map Red: The Fight to Create a Permanent Republican Majority, which preceded the Democrats retaking Congress in 2006 for the first time in 12 years.
The donkeys may be picking themselves up off the mat, but don't confuse that for voter enthusiasm. Political self-identification as measured by Gallup was stuck down at 30 percent for Democrats (and 26 percent for Republicans) as of March; the party has failed to attract even one-third of Americans to its label for four long years now.
Why the reticence? For one of the main reasons, just consult any recent edition of The Hill. There, since the beginning of the year, the Washington, D.C., political newspaper has published scores of items noodling on the relentlessly banal musings of a person who has never held a job remotely near government: Chelsea Clinton.
There was "Chelsea Clinton fuels speculation of political run," "Chelsea Clinton plans new children's book," and—God help us—"Chelsea Clinton knocks ObamaCare replacement plan."
While providing the former first daughter generous helpings of airtime to promote her young adult rah-rah book It's Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going!, news anchors such as CBS' Gayle King have all but begged Clinton to run not just for elected office but for president. Like, three years from now. ("I'm definitely not the right person to run to defeat [Trump] in 2020," Clinton replied. "So right now, the answer is no.")
This 100 percent top-down campaign to whip up enthusiasm for Clinton 3.0 reached a low point with a Los Angeles Times op-ed by Ann Friedman featuring the gag-me headline, "Just like her mother, Chelsea Clinton never gets a break." Yes, the poor dear had to scratch and claw for every penny of the $600,000 annual NBC News salary she received to produce an estimated 58 minutes of programming between 2011 and 2014.
Like former first lady Michelle Obama, whose name has also been whispered fervently by would-be queenmakers, Chelsea Clinton could exist as a hypothetical candidate only in a party that has run out of both ideas and talent. Surely there are more interesting politicians in this country of 320 million than rich, platitude-spewing amateurs with drearily famous last names.