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What makes this year’s midterms historic

How do this year’s midterm elections compare to those in the past? Judy Woodruff gets insights from presidential historian Michael Beschloss about the significance of this year’s races given the current power dynamic among the three branches of government.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Throughout the night, we are going to be taking a step back every once in a while for a longer view of today's developments with historian Michael Beschloss.

    And he joins me now.

    So, Michael, you do look at American history. You have looked at elections, recent and in the distant past. Have you ever seen a midterm or read about a midterm like this one?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    No, not like this, Judy.

    And the difference is, we know that these midterm elections can change a presidency — 1946, Truman lost both houses of Congress for the first time in 16 years, had to moderate his liberal policies.

    Or Lyndon Johnson in 1966 lost 47 House seats. He had to trim back the Great Society. Or Bill Clinton in 1994, first time in 40 years the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress. Two months later, Clinton gives his State of the Union and says, the era of big government is over.

    So, if the Democrats win the House, for instance, tonight, Donald Trump is going to have to change his plans ideologically. Doesn't have two houses to passes these things anymore.

    But, at the same time, this is a president who has not had many checks. We now have a Supreme Court with perhaps a five-justice majority that is probably favorable to Trump on many things. There's going to be a report by Robert Mueller in the near future.

    And if the Democrats are in control of Congress, it's going to be much more difficult for him to deep-six that report.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Michael, presidents don't have any choice but to listen to the voters in these midterms?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    They really do, if they want to get reelected.

    For instance, Bill Clinton essentially said, I would like to go on and do more audacious things like health care, as I tried in 1994, but the public obviously thinks that I went too fast.

    And when he ran in 1996, he was a far more moderate person, at least the way the public saw him and the way he tried to project himself, than he was at the time that the midterms happened in '94.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael, the other thing — one thing we have certainly been watching in the last days, even weeks, is how much President Trump has invested himself in this election, out on the trail, more even than most presidents at a midterm…

  • Michael Beschloss:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    … doing rallies, doing appearances.

    Can that shape an electorate? Can that shape a president's future?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Sure, it can, because, you know, if he loses at least one house of Congress tonight, it's going to be almost impossible for him to credibly say tomorrow morning: This had nothing to do with me, we had bad candidates or this was some comment by the voters on the way that members of Congress were behaving.

    It was his choice to make this a mammoth referendum on Donald Trump, and he's going to have to take the burden of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Beschloss, remembering history and connecting the dots for us, thank you.

    We are going to be talking to you throughout this night.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Look forward to it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we look forward too.

    And you can learn more about Michael Beschloss, including when his fascination with the presidency began, in the latest episode of "That Moment When."

    That's the NewsHour's weekly show on Facebook Watch. It's a video-on-demand section of the social media site.

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