With anticipation running high that 2006 could emerge as a watershed midterm-election year, a big question is whether major Democratic gains are in the long-term interest of the Democratic Party.
Sure, the question sounds foolish. For a party that’s been locked out of the clubhouse for years, the possibility of taking over Congress is more tantalizing than a sleazy tell-all book from Laura Bush. But the history of post-World War II elections suggests that midterm bonanzas can be fool’s gold.
The most obvious example came with the 1946 elections. America was experiencing a post-war hangover and Harry Truman was almost universally derided as a clueless, caretaker president. That November, Republicans gained 55 seats in the House and 12 in the Senate, giving the GOP control of both chambers. While these results created a seismic shift in American politics, they also breathed new life into Truman’s presidency. With little to lose, he went into feisty underdog mode, figuring that at least he’d go down fighting. Able to attack what he called the “Do-Nothing Republican Congress,” he barnstormed the country on his famous whistlestop campaign, and pulled the rug from under complacent Republican challenger Thomas Dewey.
In 1966, the Republicans were reeling from Barry Goldwater’s blowout loss to Lyndon Johnson two years earlier, and trying to fight the growing impression that they were an irrelevant fringe group. But Johnson, much like George W. Bush this year, had damaged his credibility and exhausted public patience with an unpopular war, while race riots and student unrest created the sense of a nation unraveling. As a result, the GOP gained 47 House and three Senate seats, not to mention eight governorships and more than 500 state legislators.
While Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election is frequently viewed as a transforming event in American politics, the real turning point came in 1966, because it signaled voter dissatisfaction with a social-reform philosophy which the country had blindly accepted since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Also, for the first time, the Democrats’ “Solid South” began to crumble, helping to create a new, socially-conservative GOP base that continues to dominate our political discourse. If you throw out Jimmy Carter’s narrow 1976 win (a Watergate-aided fluke) and Bill Clinton’s centrist, triangulation triumphs (Perot-aided semi-flukes), the Democrats have never really recovered.
After the 1982 midterms, the Democrats thought they were prepared to put Reagan out to pasture. With supply-side economics initially delivering little but a staggering recession — and with Reagan’s own budget guru David Stockman publicly complaining that the administration cooked the books to hide the deficits created by their tax cuts — the Gipper’s sunny-side-up charm left voters cold in ’82. Democrats gained 26 House seats that year and seemed to be poised for a serious presidential run in 1984. But Reagan, much like Nixon in 1972, managed to consolidate his strengths just in time for a reelection bid. The economy picked up, Reagan earned Rambo street cred for his 1983 invasion of Grenada, and campaign ads convinced the electorate that it was “morning in America.”
The 1994 midterms did for Clinton what 1946 did for Truman. With Republicans annihilating Democrats behind an ultra-conservative “Contract With America,” voters yanked the car keys out of Clinton’s hand, and made Newt Gingrich the nation’s designated driver. But Clinton, like Truman, always did his best work when he was in political trouble, and he coyly gave Gingrich enough rope to hang himself, playing the statesman while Republicans shut down the federal government. Result: In 1996, Clinton chewed up Bob Dole like he was a day-old Egg McMuffin.
Complicating the meaning of this year’s election is the presence of the “six-year-itch” factor. If you think of Kennedy / Johnson as one administration and do the same for Nixon/Ford, post-war voters have rejected the party of every president when that administration reaches year number six. It happened to Truman in 1950, Eisenhower in 1958, Johnson in 1966, Ford in 1974 (a GOP disaster that resulted from Nixon’s resignation and the pardon he subsequently received from his successor), and Reagan in 1986. The only exception was 1998, when the cagey Clinton benefited from a voter backlash against Republicans who played politics with the Lewinsky scandal.
Bush will almost certainly be dressed down this year, as his predecessors have been. But if the election results give Democrats new muscle, they also give them new responsibilities, which could put them on the defensive in 2008.