Wall Street Journal
November 5, 2002
The political pros say Republicans will retain
control of the U.S. House today, despite a mediocre economy and
stock market. If that happens, Democrats should take credit for
gerrymandering themselves right out of a competitive election year.
We warned Democrats about this last November 11 ("The Gerrymander
Scandal"), and we've long deplored the practice of incumbents in
both parties protecting their jobs by carving out safe Congressional
seats. But now that the results are sinking in, the Beltway press
corps is finally paying attention. Even the head- in-sand liberals
on CNN's "Capital Gang" are suddenly blaming the likely Democratic
defeat on redistricting, which is certainly less painful than
blaming Democratic ideas. But they have a point, however late they
are to notice.
Going into today's vote, there were almost as many
competitive Senate as House races. About 10 of 33 Senate contests
were toss-ups, while only 15 of 435 House seats could still go
either way. With elections every two years, the House was designed
to be the body of government most responsive to the public. But it
is now far more insulated from public opinion than is the Senate,
because no one has yet found a way to gerrymander a state.
Gerrymanders are hardly new, but it used to be that politicians had
to guess how to draw district lines every 10 years. Nowadays they
use computer databases that can account for voter tendencies down to
the city block. Nowadays, too, politicians tend to be careerists who
prize incumbency above even partisanship. So rather than go for
broke every decade by creating many competitive seats, their first
priority is to protect themselves.
This is the box canyon Democrats
have walked into this year. In California, Texas, New York and
Illinois, accounting for nearly one-third of all House seats, they
conspired with GOP incumbents to freeze the status quo. The result
is that in America's largest state of California, which is
increasingly Democratic, only one of 53 House races is even
competitive, and that one only because Gary Condit became famous.
Republicans in the state still can't believe their good luck.
Illinois, meanwhile, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and senior
Democrat William Lipinski worked out a cozy little deal that made 18
of the state's 19 districts safe for incumbents. One beneficiary is
freshman Republican Tim Johnson, who won in 2000 with only 53%. But
that was before a gerrymander gave his district a bizarre 100-mile
fishhook along the Indiana border that piled up GOP voters (see map
nearby). Mr. Johnson's 2000 opponent wanted a rematch but, not being
a masochist, he dropped out as soon as the new lines were drawn. Mr.
Johnson is now so secure in his incumbency that he's repudiated his
pledge to limit himself to three terms.
As for the only competitive
House seat in Illinois, Republican John Shimkus is beating
Democratic incumbent David Phelps. So in a state in which Democrats
are likely to win the governorship in a blowout, they will probably
lose a seat in the House this year.
Why good-government liberals
aren't appalled by this is beyond us. They claim to prize
"diversity," especially on race, but this year's gerrymanders have
helped to protect old white male Democrats. That's especially true
in Texas, where a Democratic state judge issued a balanced,
competitive plan, only to elicit howls of outrage from Congressman
Martin Frost, a Member of the Democratic leadership. The judge
reversed himself and crafted a plan that left the state without a
single competitive House race this year. Republicans will pick up
the state's two new House seats, but ambitious Latinos who want to
represent their fast-growing population will have to wait.
cheer this Democratic self-immolation, except that it's bad for
democracy. Goo-goo liberals destroy entire forests bemoaning the
lack of voter turnout, but why vote if the race is already over?
Pre-fixed elections strike us as a far greater cause of voter
cynicism than "negative ads" or "campaign finance reform" or the
other windmills that the goo-goos usually tilt at.
is the example of Iowa, which has only five House seats but two
competitive races this year. A pair of GOP incumbents, including
26-year veteran Jim Leach, are in dogfights because in Iowa a non-
partisan legislative service bureau draws district lines. We are
often suspicious of such bodies, but today's incumbent protection is
so extreme that something has to be done.
liberals awake to political problems only when they hurt Democrats,
as they finally did after the independent counsel law was used
against Bill Clinton. So perhaps if House Democrats go down to
gerrymandered defeat today, the left will find a new cause. Think of
it this way: The modern gerrymander may keep Tom DeLay as House
Majority Leader for 10 more years.