Three weeks ago, Democrats took what President Obama dubbed a “shellacking” at the polls: Republicans picked up 62 seats in the House, enough to gain a majority, and six in the Senate. The next day, the post-election analysis and finger-pointing began. Defeated Democrats blamed the President. Defeated Republicans blamed the media and the Washington establishment. The President (whose usual reaction is to blame Bush) blamed the American people’s anxiety over not feeling the change he had promised. All blame games aside, the real question remains unanswered: what did the 2010 election mean?
To gain some perspective, we should look to previous major midterm Republican sweeps: 1994 (54 House: 9 Senate), 1946 (55 House: 13 Senate) and 1938 (81 House: 6 Senate).
In 1994, Republicans won because Democrats overreached. The Republican Revolution of 1994 ushered in the first Republican-controlled Congress in 40 years. Their success was attributable not only to Democratic missteps (scandals and presidential support of unpopular government-run healthcare), but also to Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. The Contract provided a new vision of limited government, including specific proposals for legislation on jobs, taxes, and welfare, and structural reforms for Congressional committees and leadership.
1994 was not the only time Americans rejected an expansionist agenda in favor of a vision of limited government. As Michael Barone argues, the key issue of the 1946 midterms turned on the scope of government: would the United States become like Britain, who “elected a Labour government that instituted national health insurance and a cradle-to-grave welfare state.” In his 1944 State of the Union address, Franklin Roosevelt had proposed exactly that—a cradle-to-grave welfare state disguised as a new bill of rights. FDR died before he could implement it, leaving Truman to continue his legacy. But, after numerous labor disputes and strikes, Truman’s attempt to take over industries in response to those strikes (without any constitutional authority), and the threat of communism, the American people had enough. Wary of a united and expanding government, the American people gave Republicans large gains and the majority in the House and Senate during the 1946 election.
The 1938 midterm election is even more telling, as Matthew Spalding suggests. Following his landslide election in 1936, FDR expanded his agenda and consolidated control of government. He tried to expand the power of the presidency and pack the Supreme Court with justices who would rubber-stamp his expansionist agenda. He did not let the 1937 recession go to waste: he waged a campaign against the wealthy, abandoned his promises to balance the budget, and embraced stimulus spending. In response to FDR’s actions, Republicans picked up 81 seats in the House and 6 Senate seats in the 1938 midterm elections. While Democrats still controlled Congress, and FDR went on to be re-elected, twice, the expansionary phase of the New Deal was over.
What the 1994, 1946, and 1938 midterms demonstrate is that the American people punish overly ambitious, expansionist agendas—especially agendas that aim to nationalize health care. But, history also indicates that the ascendance of conservative legislators does not translate into total victory over progressive goals. In both 1994 and 1946, Republicans misjudged their opponents’ political skills. The instances of bi-partisan cooperation with the executive resulted in wins for the president. More importantly, Republicans failed to reiterate the need to limit government, contributing electoral defeats. Indeed, as the 1996 and 1948 presidential elections reveal, presidents can always recover from a midterm drubbing. Clinton triangulated, supporting the popular conservative proposals and vetoing others to secure re-election in 1996. Truman found common ground with his Republican Congress on foreign policy, but exploited those efforts in such a way that the 80th Congress is still remembered as the “Do-Nothing Congress.” Finally, as the presidential election of 1940 reveals, progressive ideas do not loosen easily once they are entrenched in the American way of life. FDR had successfully realigned American politics to the degree that even Republican’s 1938 midterm gains did not result in congressional majorities or long-term dominance.
By all accounts, the 2010 midterms were meant to punished lawmakers for unpopular expansions of the federal government. James Ceaser writes that the 2010 election was the most nationalized midterm election in American history: “Every Republican competing for national office, from Hawaii to New Hampshire, ran against the Obama agenda and made it the centerpiece of the campaign.” There is reason to assume that the midterm shellacking has halted Obama’s expansionist agenda. But, as Spalding notes, “it does not yet mean the national course has changed, that progressive successes have been reversed or that a liberal president might not go on to be re-elected.” To be sure, conservatives must continue to argue for limited government. But like Clinton, Truman, and FDR, President Obama could tweak his agenda and coast to a second term in 2012. It looks like we may have to wait for 2012 to understand 2010.