Conventional wisdom has it that the stunning defeat of Democratic congressional candidates this month was entirely predictable, given the sluggish economy and an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent. But the conventional wisdom is misleading.
A 9.6 percent unemployment rate is not good — but it is not the Great Depression either; all by itself, it cannot explain a shift of nearly 70 seats in the House and Senate. But a more compelling reason to doubt this explanation is that we have seen big shifts in midterm elections in the past, and they have not correlated very well with high unemployment or the general condition of the economy. In 1994, when Republicans added 54 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate, unemployment was at 5.9 percent and falling. In 1966, Republicans gained 47 seats in the House and 3 in the Senate with an unemployment rate of only 3.7 percent – very close to “full” employment. In 1946, Republicans picked up 55 House and 7 Senate seats against an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent. Only in the historic debacle of 1938, when Republicans added 80 seats in the House and 7 in the Senate, was high unemployment a factor, and then the rate was stunningly high: 19 percent and rising.
But there is one fact that does correlate pretty well with these mid-term shifts: in each case, the voters were given a chance to grade an activist Democratic President with an ambitious “big government” agenda, and in each case the President flunked. In 1938, President Roosevelt was still smarting from his failed effort to pack the Supreme Court with more pliant judges – on top of an unemployment rate that was climbing once again, after a brief decline. In 1946, President Truman was trying to augment the New Deal by proposing national health insurance, while refusing to free the economy from the wartime price controls that were creating commodity shortages in everything from meat to housing. In 1966, President Johnson was in the midst of his Great Society crusade, the largest expansion of the Federal government since the New Deal. And in 1994, President Clinton had just been burned by “Hillarycare” and the assault weapons ban, both deeply unpopular among Republicans and Independents. What President Obama has just experienced seems very similar to what other Democratic presidents have experienced, in good economic times as well as bad.
Mid-term elections are a feature of American politics that many foreigners find difficult to understand. After you have chosen a government, they wonder, shouldn’t you let it govern for a few years before giving it a grade? No, Americans say; or rather, No, said the Framers of the Constitution, who believed that overlapping terms for the House, Senate, and President would contribute to the strategy of controlling government by separating and dividing its parts. Two-year terms for the House would make a somewhat undemocratic Constitution more popular, and have the additional benefit of limiting the power of the Executive.
Of course, it is not only Democrats who suffer these limits. In 1974, Democrats gained 49 seats in the House and 3 in the Senate, as the public’s revulsion against President Nixon and the Watergate scandal finally registered at the polls. In 1982, Democrats picked up 27 House seats and one Senate seat, during the “Reagan recession,” and in 2006 Democrats retook the Congress, winning 31 House seats and 5 Senate seats in a sign of public dissatisfaction with the administration of George W. Bush.
But the truly large shifts were not about scandal and failure, but about overreach. They have been defeats of the Democratic Party under Democratic Presidents, and they have signaled the American voters’ consistent distaste for big government idealism and its implications for taxes, debts, and bureaucratic intrusion into citizens’ lives.
If the President misreads the lessons of this election – if he thinks, for example, that a declining unemployment rate will make Americans suddenly eager for higher taxes, more regulation, and bigger deficits, or that Americans would have voted differently if only he had explained his policies more clearly — then he may get an even bigger disappointment in 2012.
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