Why, yes, of course the Republicans will remember November 2, 2010, fondly. They won control of the US House, collapsed the Democratic majority in the US Senate, became a significantly more dominant political player states that are about to begin the redistricting process that will set lines for Congressional races for the next decade and inflicted a heap of heartbreak on progressives by defeating Democrats such as Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.
And, yes, of course, that’s a short-term bummer for Barack Obama, who was right when he said before the election that a shift in the Congressional balance toward the Republicans would make his job a whole lot harder.
But for all the talk of landslides, waves and tsunamis, 2010 produced a relatively typical midterm election for a new president.
Obama and the Democrats actually fared better than did Bill Clinton and the Democrats of 1994.
In a reasonably parallel circumstance—politically, if not economically—a first-term Democratic president went into his first mid-terms with solid majorities in the House and Senate and came out with solid Republican majorities. Newt Gingrich’s "Republican Revolution" shifted fifty-four House seats from the Democrats to the Republicans and gave the former speaker a 230-to-204 majority. Though there are still races to be settled, it looks this year like Ohio Congressman John Boehner will begin his speakership with a slightly larger majority. But, unlike in 1994, Republicans will not control the Senate.
The unfortunate reality of what passes for political analysis these days is that most analysts will—for better or worse—make the 1994 comparison and be done with it.
But that misses the broader historical reality.
The fact is that the first midterms of new presidents have more often than not resulted in serious setbacks for the party that controls the White House. And that goes double in difficult economic times.
Ronald Reagan, fresh from a landslide win in 1980 that gave Republicans clear control of the Senate for the first time in a quarter century and a big enough House delegation to establish a coalition with conservative Southern Democrats that enacted much of the "Reaganomics" agenda, saw House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s Democrats pick up twenty-seven seats in the 1982 midterm election. With only 166 members in the House, Reagan’s Republicans held fewer seats than at any times from 1980 to today, and Reagan’s agenda had no choice but to start bargaining with liberal Democrats such as O’Neill and Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy.
After Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide, Democrats enjoyed a 68–32 majority in the Senate and a 295–140 majority in the House. In 1966, Republicans picked up four Senate seats and forty-seven House seats, while sweeping statehouses across the country. That election, as much as the Vietnam War, dialed back Johnson’s Great Society ambitions.
But Johnson had it easy compared with Harry Truman. Truman’s Democrats went into the 1946 midterm election with a 57–38 majority in the Senate and a 243–190 majority in the House. They came out of them facing Republican majorities of 51–45 in the Senate and 246–188 in the House.
The analysis of the 1946 election was that Truman was doomed politically.
As it turned out he was reelected in 1948 and voters handed him a 54–42 Democratic majority in the Senate and a 263–171 majority in the House. With more Northern and Western Democrats elected in both chambers, Truman was actually better positioned to govern as a liberal.
Truman’s story is the one Obama and congressional Democrats will take the most comfort from when all the 2010 votes are counted.
But Truman is not the only president who was re-elected two years after a midterm saw his party suffer severe setbacks. Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats and their Progressive and Farmer-Labor allies lost eighty House seats and a half-dozen Senate seats in 1938, only to see FDR overwhelmingly re-elected in 1940. Reagan came back from the 1982 setback to secure a forty-nine-seat re-election landslide in 1984. Clinton lost it all in 1994 and then won re-election with ease in 1996.
In fact, there is some evidence that losing big in the first midterm election might be better for a sitting president than losing small. Consider this: in 1978, first-term President Jimmy Carter’s Democratic Party lost just three Senate seats and fifteen House seats—not so much a setback as a correction after the dramatic Democratic advances of the post-Watergate elections.
Two years later, Carter lost to Reagan and Democrats shed a dozen Senate seats (including those of Senate giants Frank Church, Gaylord Nelson and George McGovern) and 35 House seats.
It is the Carter comparison that Obama must hope to avoid.
But to do so, he is going to have to make a smart calculation. Obama is unlikely to have the robust economy that Clinton enjoyed, so triangulation and compromise are unlikely to do much more than reinforce Republican messaging. If he is smart, Obama will borrow the a page from Truman’s playbook. Faced with a reactionary Republican Congress, Truman pulled out his veto pen, took to the bully pulpit and gave ’em hell.
Truman also counseled against compromise, explaining that: "Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for a real Republican all the time."
Of all the political lessons that Barack Obama will take from the 2010 midterm elections that, undoubtedly, is the most important one.