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History Lessons: Midterms as Political Referendum

October 27, 2010 at 5:23 PM EDT
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Jim Lehrer gets historical perspective on the 2010 midterms from Professor Beverly Gage of Yale University and Richard Norton Smith, a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University.

JIM LEHRER: And now to some midterm elections history from Richard Norton Smith, presidential historian and a scholar in residence at George Mason University, and Beverly Gage, a professor of American history at Yale University.

Beverly Gage, first, just in general, what does history tell us about the importance of midterm elections?

BEVERLY GAGE, professor, Yale University: Well, midterm elections, historically, are almost always overshadowed by presidential elections.


BEVERLY GAGE: We tend to think in terms of presidents. But they have played really critical roles at some really key moments in American history. And the moments where they have been most important have largely been when two things happened. The first is when either the Senate or the House or both of them have changed hands from one party to another, most often, because it’s a midterm election, from the president’s party to the opposite.

And the second is when these party changes happen at moments where really critical issues are at stake. A couple of examples that come to mind, 1918, you see a switch in the Senate in particular under Woodrow Wilson. They scotch his plans for the League of Nations.

Another significant midterm election, 1946, Harry Truman has just become president. You begin to get real Republican pushback against New Deal policies and against Harry Truman’s domestic agenda.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, what would you add to that list?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, scholar in residence, George Mason University: I would add, it certainly is a historical trend. In the last 100 years, only twice, has a president, his party in power added seats in…

JIM LEHRER: Only twice?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The first — in the two years, halfway through the first term, in 1934, FDR at the height of the New Deal. And then, in 2002, George W. Bush defied the odds in the wake of 9/11, and Republicans actually picked up seats.

Now, the real curse in American party politics is the six-year curse. Six years into a president’s term, it’s Katy bar the door. But the fact is, two years…

JIM LEHRER: Because he’s already — he — and all “he”s up until now at least — been considered lame ducks and all of that.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: He’s a lame duck. He’s probably intellectually spent.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Yes.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The energy level is low. People are looking forward to something else.

The nature of the two years, it’s kind of a — for some people, it’s a do-over. For some people, it’s a midcourse correction.

JIM LEHRER: Is it always a referendum on the sitting president?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It is increasingly so, I think particularly in the modern media age. I mean, one of the interesting things is, for 40 years, the Democrats had the House, from early ’50s until ’94. The Republicans then took the House and held on to it for 12 years. The Democrats took the House back in 2006. If they lose it on Tuesday, they will have had it for four years.

There’s something going on here. The period of one-party dominance has been shrinking measurably. And I think that’s in part because of the emphasis we place on the executive. We have personalized these elections. They’re not localized. This is — for lots of people, this is a referendum on Barack Obama.

And it’s not just the angry anti-Obama forces. If you’re on the left, and you are disappointed in this administration for whatever reason, you can express your disappointment by not voting. And that is a significant fact. That’s the source of the enthusiasm gap, I think, that we have heard about all year.

JIM LEHRER: Beverly Gage, through history, how have presidents who have gotten the short stick in a midterm election, how have they handled disapproval?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, they have handled it differently, depending on their personalities.


BEVERLY GAGE: Woodrow Wilson notoriously handled it incredibly poorly. By the time he’s at the end of World War I, he’s had a stroke.

But he also, in particular, took this Republican repudiation deeply personally. He refused to work with them. And it really ruined a lot of his plans. Presidents who can step back a little bit, take it a little bit less personally, and try to negotiate some sort of compromise tend to do a little bit better in those sorts of scenarios.

I think it’s also — to jump off a little bit of what…


BEVERLY GAGE: … Richard was saying, I do think the 1934 election is an interesting parallel to look at. It’s, on the one hand, quite exceptional, because the Democrats, under Franklin Roosevelt, actually pick up so many seats that year.

But, given that Obama was in fact being so roundly compared to Franklin Roosevelt when he was elected — we were going to have another New Deal in the midst of economic crisis — I do think it’s worth asking why the repudiation of Obama has been quite as severe as it is, and why he couldn’t capitalize, like Roosevelt did in 1934.

We said, it’s an exceptional moment, certainly, but, given all of those earlier comparisons, I think it’s worth thinking about.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Let me try to answer that, all right, with one theory.


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And that is, we didn’t have a Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt…

JIM LEHRER: We had a small recession instead?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: We had a great recession.


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And, if you have lost your job, you’re depressed. There’s no doubt that there are lots people in this country who are hurting. More than that, there is this pervasive — I think pervasive fear that the future may not be what Americans traditionally have assumed it to be.

There’s a clear fear of China. There’s a sense that this is a country and a culture that may be in the decline. But, in terms of 1934, it was an affirmation of, in a sense, the radicalization that was in 1932. FDR took government places that no president had before. And, by 1934, people felt, psychologically at least, whatever the economic indices were, things were getting better. And so they endorsed him.

This time around, we didn’t go over the cliff. “It could have been worse” is not a banner that millions of people are going to march behind to the polls. But, in effect, that’s the Obama argument. The argument is, if you listen to the economists, eight million jobs were not lost because of the hated bailouts and TARP and all the other stuff, many of which are Bush initiatives.


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And I think it complicates — it’s a very difficult message that Obama has to deliver.

JIM LEHRER: Most people have said, the conventional wisdom is that the one president who handled a lost midterm, 1994, Bill Clinton. Do you agree with that? And what did he do that…


JIM LEHRER: … that could, in fact, give lesson to Barack Obama?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I would say he has company, yes. The conventional wisdom is, Bill Clinton brilliantly stole Republican clothes.

He actually turned this to his advantage by co-opting the center and by waiting for the Republicans to overreach, the shutdown of the government, and et cetera.


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: But, I mean, he moved to a balanced budget. He signed the welfare reform package. And so, by ’96…

JIM LEHRER: Which were basically Republican positions.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Republican ideas. He basically shut the door on Bob Dole or any Republican candidate.

The question is whether Barack Obama, in today’s media climate, with the left on the blogosphere holding his feet to the fire, whether he has as much latitude if he wants to move to the center that Bill Clinton had.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Beverly Gage, do you agree on 1994 that Clinton, at least from his point of view, did the right thing and got things done that weren’t expected?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I think that it got him reelected. So we have some proof there.


JIM LEHRER: In ’96, right.


BEVERLY GAGE: But I actually also think — I mean, ’94 is obviously an election that gets brought up a lot this year…


BEVERLY GAGE: … because we have the same sort of angry, populist, right-wing, grassroots backlash. But I think there’s actually another election, just to throw yet another one out…


BEVERLY GAGE: … there, that’s interesting in this vein, which is 1962, not quite as exceptional as 1934, in the sense that John Kennedy didn’t have great success for the Democrats.

But it’s an interesting moment, because there were great concerns in 1962 about groups like the John Birch Society, about a — quote, unquote — “extremist right” that was playing really a quite influential role in the elections.

And, in that moment, the American electorate actually more or less pushed back against that, and the Democrats didn’t do nearly as badly in that midterm election as many people had been predicting they would.

Now, of course, it’s also true that the Cuban Missile Crisis came along and brought people together there as well.

BEVERLY GAGE: But I think it’s an interesting election in terms of a kind of right-wing, populist surge that hasn’t been as examined.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, go ahead.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: No, I was going to say, and the other example, to sort of bring us full circle, because Beverly mentioned 1946, people…


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: … gave up on Truman at that point. People thought the New Deal was in fact over. Truman, brilliantly, as we now know, used the so called do-nothing Congress.

JIM LEHRER: Nobody thought so at the time.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: No one thought at the time, but, in 1948, he managed to exploit — for example, he really energized unions, which were clearly much more powerful then than they are now.

They were not big Truman fans. But, compared with Robert Taft, and the Taft-Hartley Act, and all the efforts that the Republican Congress has taken to rein in labor, it energized organized labor in a way that nothing else could, and it contributed enormously, not only to Truman’s upset victory that year, but to the Democrats retaking Congress by a very substantial margin.

JIM LEHRER: And that was the direct result of how Truman handled the ’46 repudiation.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And that’s the alternative. Obama can be Clinton in ’94, or he can be Harry Truman in ’46.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Richard Norton Smith, Beverly Gage, thank you both very much for the lesson.


BEVERLY GAGE: Thanks, Jim.