The writing may finally be upon the teleprompter wall
Midterm Repudiations: What History Reveals About Obama’s Chances in 2012
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So now what?
That’s what Republicans—and their vanquished opponents—are asking in the wake of 2010’s midterm Democratic debacle. Does 2010 foretell similar results in 2012? Can Democrats right themselves? Will an ascendant GOP stumble?
What does history tell us about what will transpire two Novembers from now?
The party in power generally loses seats in off year contests. Rarely (think 1934) the party in power may witness a pickup. “Draws” are also possible, with no appreciable gain or loss for anybody. But measurable losses for “ins” remain the norm. The “modern” Democratic Party-Republican Party Era (no Whigs. Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, or No-Nothings need apply), has witnessed any number of midterm tussles—1862, 1882, 1914, 1922, 1938, 1942, 1950, 1954, 1978, and 1982, for example—falling into the category not of “repudiations” but, rather of mere “rebukes.”1 The party in power takes a solid shot to the jaw but is shaken rather than dropped to the canvas.
But true “repudiations” do exist, elections akin to 2010. Did they presage disaster for the “ins” in the next presidential match-up?
In a word, decidedly—but not unfailingly—“yes.”
The even dozen clear “repudiation” midterms include 1874, 1882, 1894, 1910, 1918, 1930, 1946, 1958, 1966, 1974, 1994, and 2006. Ten of those twelve foretold additional disaster.
In 1874, hard on the heels of the Panic of 1873, Democrats gained 94 House and seven Senate seats. Two years later, Samuel J. Tilden clearly won the popular vote—the first time a Democrat had done so in twenty years—but lost the highly-tainted electoral vote to Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes.
In 1882, with many new states entering the Union and 32 new seats thus added to the House, Democrats gained 68 House seats, while Republicans lost 34. Democrat New York Governor Grover Cleveland squeaked to victory in 1884.
In 1890, following passage of the unpopular Republican McKinley Tariff, the GOP dropped 93 House seats, including that of Ohio’s William McKinley himself. Two years later, Democrat Grover Cleveland defeated incumbent Benjamin Harrison and returned to the White House.
In 1894, in the wake the horrendous Panic of 1893, Republicans gained 130 House seats—the largest midterm gain ever. Two years later, William McKinley, now governor of Ohio, cruised to victory over unpopular populist William Jennings Bryan.
In 1910, a badly fractured GOP forfeited eight Senate and 58 House seats. Republicans remained splintered in 1912, and progressive New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson required only a 41.8% plurality to defeat Theodore Roosevelt and incumbent William Howard Taft.
In 1918, Republicans gained 25 House and seven Senate seats to resume control of both houses. Two years later, Republicans Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge returned the nation to “normalcy” by crushing James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt with 60.3% of the popular vote.
1930 certainly witnessed a repudiation of star-crossed Herbert Hoover (the GOP lost 52 House and eight Senate seats), though not as much as one might surmise. The Great Depression had yet to do its worst, and it took until December 1932 for Democrats to finally assume even a one-vote majority in the House. Republicans technically retained control of the Senate until 1933. Nonetheless, Franklin Roosevelt (now governor of New York) easily overwhelmed Hoover in 1932.
In 1958, Democrats gained 48 House seats. In the Senate they gained three open seats and defeated ten Republican incumbents. Two years later Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy, overcame objections to his Catholicism and his inexperience, to edge Vice President Richard M. Nixon.
1966 was a repudiation but with clear limits. The GOP gained 66 seats (and took a rare majority of the vote outside the South) but only gained three Senate seats. Two years later, Republican Richard Nixon defeated Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and the American Independent Party’s George C. Wallace but received only 43.4% of the popular vote.
In 1974—the Watergate election—Democrats added another 49 seats to their already comfortable House majority. Two years later, lackluster Jimmy Carter edged past equally lackluster accidental president Gerald R. Ford.
In 2006, Democrats gained 31 House and six Senate seats to wrest control of both houses from the GOP. Two years later, Barack Hussein Obama cruised past the accommodating John McCain.
Thus, a midterm repudiation normally points to a subsequent similar presidential verdict. But two noticeable exceptions confront us: 1946 and 1994.
In 1946, a resurgent post-war GOP campaigned on the slogan “Had Enough?” and gained 55 House seats (including Jerry Voorhis’ southern California seat won by Richard Nixon) and ten Senate seats (including Harry Truman’s former Missouri senate seat). Two years later Truman overcame not only precedent but a three-way split in Democratic ranks to narrowly upset New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey.
In 1994, in the wake of Clinton administration missteps on health care and gays in the military—and congressional Democratic scandals—Newt Gingrich-led Republicans gained 54 seats to end forty years of Democratic control. Two years later, Bill Clinton easily dispatched Senator Bob Dole and billionaire sound-bite machine H. Ross Perot.
So why did Harry Truman and Bill Clinton survive when all others perished?
Certain commonalities exist.
Both Truman and Clinton were battle-tested politicians, used to coming back from adversity long before either ever came near Pennsylvania Avenue. Truman had gone bust in business and lost his county judgeship. He had overcome tremendous odds to win—and retain—his Missouri senate seat. Clinton had lost his first race (for Congress) and even re-election to the Arkansas governorship. Both knew how to face setbacks. Clinton was not the “Comeback Kid” for nothing.
Both Truman and Clinton were in some sense accidental presidents. Vice President Truman arrived at the White House thanks to FDR’s April 1945 death. Clinton arrived thanks to Ross Perot receiving 18.9% of the vote in 1992. He himself received just 43% of the vote.
Both Truman and Clinton triumphed in elections featuring third party candidacies. Ross Perot ran again in 1996 (garnering 8.2%) and Bill Clinton returned to office with just 49.2% of the vote, thus qualifying Clinton and Woodrow Wilson as the nation’s only two-term minority-vote chief executives.
Harry Truman’s Democratic Party split three ways in 1948, with former Vice President Henry A. Wallace’s Progressives taking votes in the north and west and South Carolina Governor J. Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats capturing electoral votes in the South. Neither Wallace nor Thurmond came anywhere near their original goals, and Truman retained enough of the New Deal coalition (and actually increased its Catholic component) to narrowly win re-election.
Both Truman and Clinton enjoyed the luxury of lackluster moderate GOP opponents. “Me-too” Republican Tom Dewey personified sonorously dull “play-it-safe” politics. In 1996, party warhorse Bob Dole, exemplifying the “it’s my turn” principle of nominations, coasted past hapless competition to secure the GOP nod. He barely improved on George H. W. Bush’s Hooveresque totals.
Both Truman and Clinton proved adept at demonizing congressional Republican opponents—Truman hammering at the “Do-Nothing Eightieth Congress”; Clinton skewering lightning-rod GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Both Truman and Clinton enjoyed propitious budgetary conditions. In 1948, Truman and his Treasury Secretary John Snyder boasted the largest surplus in history, $8,419,469,843.81—a full seven times larger than the previous record, $1,155,000,000, achieved by Calvin Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon in 1927. In 1996, America’s seemingly inevitable budget deficit had been in decline since 1993. It was finally erased in 1997.
Both Truman and Clinton presided over a nation at peace, and unlike a nation at peace after Vietnam, it was a nation at victorious peace in both 1948 (after World War II and with the Cold War just beginning) and 1996 (after the Cold War and the War on Terror—or rather the War from Terror—not yet fully commenced).
Both Truman and Clinton enjoyed healthy economies. America had inflation jitters in 1948, but unemployment averaged just 3.8%. In 1996, unemployment ran to just 5.4%, the lowest rate since 1988.
Thus, given a properly inept GOP opponent, Barack Obama can survive—though the odds are against him. First, he possesses little of Harry Truman or Bill Clinton’s political street smarts. He has never really come back from anything—save from Indonesia. His ability to blame opponents for his failings has already worn threadbare. He will not only have to successfully resolve the conflict in Afghanistan, he will have to hope that no other front erupts in the War on Terror. Even more problematically, inflation must be avoided. The deficit must at least seem to be on the road to control. Unemployment must be slashed dramatically.
That is a powerful coalition of obstacles to overcome. The writing may finally be upon the teleprompter wall.