For all the talk about the historic nature of the 2012 election – the first time a second Democratic president was re-elected within a 16-year span from the previous Democratic incumbent – the year was more a case of history repeating itself.
Barack Obama earned a second term based in large part on his ability to paint his Republican opponent into a negative corner – specifically, $30 million of attack ads in Ohio during the summer portraying Mitt Romney as a job-outsourcer and clandestine overseas banker (here’s an example).
It was a time-honored tactic. Eight years prior, in 2004, then-President George W. Bush likewise got the jump on John Kerry, portraying his Democratic rival as an opportunistic flip-flopper who legislated as he windsurfed – the senator’s views shifting with the breeze (“which ever way the wind blows”).
And how did Bush settle on this strategy? Perhaps by watching Bill Clinton construct an argument for his reelection in 1996 based on the deconstruction of Bob Dole (here’s one such ad) – “Mediscare” becoming an addition to the political lexicon.
It’s one of the two historical quirks Obama, Bush and Clinton share – different presidencies, similar re-election styles. The other being that they’re the first three presidents to consecutively serve two terms since the Jefferson, Madison and Monroe presidencies of 1801-1825.
Will the 2014 midterm election be uniquely historic? Or will it follow a familiar pattern? You can decide by figuring which of these models best applies to this year’s environment.
That would include:
The Backlash. The obvious of the choices in that three of the last five midterms (2010, 2006 and 1994) played out the same: the incumbent’s party paying a heavy congressional price for a policy course that backfired against the White House and its allies on Capitol Hill (we’re leaving out the 1998 midterm – more on that in a moment). In 1994, the source of anger was Hillarycare (plus assorted Clintonian stumbling and bumbling). In 2006, it was an unpopular war in Iraq. In 2010: Obamacare and Democratic overreach. Is 2014 the second straight time that Obamacare comes back to haunt Democrats, or does another factor emerge by November?
Such as . . .
The Economy. When the dust settled in 1982 and the first midterm verdict on the Reagan presidency, Democrats emerged with 27 more seats in the House, though only one additional seat in the Senate. The culprit: an economic recession and an unemployment rate that had slipped past 10%. The same formula occurred in 1958: economic recession, Republican president, Democrats gaining 48 House seats and a whopping 13 Senate seats (thanks in part to Republicans having to defend 21 of 34 seats in play). Is 2014 another recession election? Not exactly – not when the U.S. has finally regained the private-sector jobs lost in the recession.
Scandal. Earlier this year, George Will predicted that the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups is destined to be one of the three great Washington-televised scandals of modern times – the other two being Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair. In the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s resignation, Republicans lost 49 House and 4 Senate seats. Iran-Contra’s effect is less definitive: the scandal didn’t break until November 1986. Will IRSgate rise to these levels? Probably not – not with the Washington press corps generally disinterested.
Edge of Military Suspense. The first Gulf War – Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm – cast a pall over the only midterm vote during the Bush 41 presidency: Democrats gained 7 House and 1 Senate seat. The 1962 congressional vote – only nine days after the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis – likewise minimized the damage for John F. Kennedy’s party: Democrats lost 4 House and 3 Senate seats (the 1966 midterm doesn’t apply here, as by then Vietnam had become a “hot war”). The odds of the U.S. being on the edge of military suspense by November?
Executive Overreach. One way a President can cause a backlash? By overusing his authority. Early into his second term, Franklin D. Roosevelt advocated a seemingly benign piece of legislation entitled the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. His critics gave it a catchier name: “court packing”, in honor of FDR’s desire to add more New Deal-friendly justices to a hostile Supreme Court. That power grab, combined with a sluggish economy and an intraparty rift between northern and southern Democrats would cost FDR’s party, would cost FDR’s party 71 seats in the House and 7 in the Senate (by comparison, Republicans gained 63 seats in 2010).
Legislative Overreach. Congress can also take things too far, as Republicans learned the hard way in 1998 and Bill Clinton’s second midterm referendum. Republicans were betting on a backlash against Clinton, under political siege and under legal threat of impeachment. Voters did just the opposite, giving Democrats five more House seats – the first time since 1934 that a President’s party gained seats in a midterm. Good luck, to the first Obama aide willing to go into the Oval Office and explain how a presidential extramarital affair could be the best thing to happen to Mr. Obama’s party this fall.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen