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In perspective: Jon Meacham on ‘Superlativism’

It’s only September, but the November narrative is already written. Barack Obama and the Democratic party will face what Sarah Palin would call “refudiation” at the polls, losing scores of House seats and more than a handful of senators.

From some on the right, the Democratic defeats will be cast as a conservative country‚Äôs retribution for the administration’s allegedly socialist agenda. For some on the left, the president’s defeats will be the latest evidence that he did not go far enough, fast enough. Everybody, in other words, will see in the midterms what they would like to see.

But a bit of historical perspective might rescue at least some of us from falling into what I think of as the trap of “superlativism” — the condition of self-absorbedly believing that everything that happens to us in our time is the most this or the worst that. To treat our own hour as impossibly more difficult than others is to foreclose the possibility that we might learn from the past.

And here, on the midterm question, is what the past teaches us: Every president from FDR to Bill Clinton — every president, Democrat and Republican–has lost House seats in at least one midterm election. In 1938, FDR lost 71 house seats; eight years later, Harry Truman lost 55 — in 1994 Bill Clinton lost 54. Republicans took some hits of their own. Eisenhower lost 18 seats in 1954 and 48 in 1958; the Watergate year of 1974 cost the GOP 48 seats, and Ronald Reagan lost 26 in 1982.

So if you believe that the likely Democratic defeats this fall are epochal, then logic demands that you designate every four years since 1938 as an epoch. I’d suggest instead that midterms past and present are less about grand redefinitions of American politics and more about the perennial fickleness of the American voter.

Incumbent White House parties have won 10 of the last 18 presidential elections; the odds are tight, but they favor Obama in 2012. And so gloomy Democrats, check your despair; gleeful Republicans, watch the hubris. History tells us that November returns like the ones the pros expect in six weeks or so are damaging. But they are not dispositive.