Politicians and pundits have a name for the races going on this year.
They call them “off-year” elections.
That’s because the big executive branch offices – president of the United States and, here in Indiana, governor – won’t be on the ballot Nov. 4. Less money gets spent on campaigning than in a presidential or gubernatorial year. Fewer voters turn out.
Hence, “off year.”
The term leads some people to think these elections aren’t that important. That’s a mistake.
Our preoccupation with presidents and governors obscures an understanding of the way political power really works in this nation and country. That preoccupation often blinds us to the fact that, in many ways that count, lawmakers and the legislative branch hold the reins, not the chief executive.
We like to think of the U.S. Constitution creating co-equal branches – the executive, the judicial and the legislative – of government. But that really isn’t so. The founders intended for the legislative branch to dominate.
That’s why they gave lawmakers the power to impeach and remove both presidents and Supreme Court justices while denying both the White House and the courts a way to remove members of Congress. Giving one person or party the power to fire the other makes clear who is supposed to have the upper hand.
Here in Indiana, we have an added wrinkle – the governor, for all practical purposes, doesn’t have a veto. A simple majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate overrides a gubernatorial veto, which makes a governor’s emphatic “no” more of a “please, please, please, pretty please reconsider.”
Why, then, do we always seem to see presidents and governors as the people who make things happen?
Former Indiana Senate President Pro Tempore Bob Garton, R-Columbus, once told me, “Well, it’s because the governor always has the biggest microphone.”
That’s true for presidents, too, but the noise generated by those big microphones often can drown out what’s really happening.
About this time in every presidential career, we start talking about how the White House has lost direction, momentum, energy or focus. We somehow always think of it as an isolated example.
But it isn’t.
It’s been a long, long time since there has been a successful second presidential term.
Barack Obama’s public approval ratings have plummeted to the lowest point in his presidency. George W. Bush, pounded by Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq, had even lower numbers. Bill Clinton was impeached. George H.W. Bush didn’t get a second term. Ronald Reagan suffered through Iran-Contra. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford didn’t get second chances. Richard Nixon resigned just ahead of impeachment and removal. Lyndon Johnson didn’t try. John F. Kennedy was shot. Dwight Eisenhower became the first re-elected president not to bring his party to power with him. Harry Truman didn’t run in 1952 because he likely faced the prospect of a humiliating defeat.
Franklin Roosevelt might be the exception to the rule, but his second term (of four) brought with it his first real political defeat when he tried to pack the U.S. Supreme Court and failed. After that, he had to surrender many of his New Deal initiatives and tack rightward.
Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding all were one-termers. Before them, Woodrow Wilson wrecked his health and his presidency trying to bring the United States into the League of Nations.
That’s a century-long record of presidencies foundering in second terms – many of them because of conflicts with Congress, conflicts that the legislators inevitably won.
That’s because, in fights between presidents and Congress, the rules are written so that Congress is supposed to win. Most of the advantages in the contest are on the lawmakers’ side.
That’s even truer now that members of the U.S. House of Representatives – and, for that matter, the Indiana House of Representatives – can draw the legislative maps with surgical precision to insulate themselves from possible political challenges. They now can fight without really having to worry about getting hit themselves.
Lawmakers don’t have the big microphones that Bob Garton talked about, but they have something else that matters more.
And “off-year” elections?
There’s no such thing.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.