1998 Congressional elections take place in an historical context that has to give heartburn to the Democrats. Presidents seem cursed to fare badly in the middle of their second terms. Usually, the president’s party in Congress pays the price.
After FDR’s 1936 landslide, Congressional Republicans skidded on the edge of extinction, with a mere 89 House members and 17 Senators. An overconfident Roosevelt then blundered with his unpopular scheme to pack liberals into the Supreme Court. The fall of 1937 brought a deep recession that reversed much of the economic progress that America had made during the New Deal. In 1938, the GOP snapped back, picking up 80 seats in the House and six in the Senate.
At the start of Ike’s second term, Republicans were in the minority in both chambers, but only by slender margins. Then the Soviets launched Sputnik, manufacturing industries crashed, Vice President Nixon got stoned in Caracas (with rocks, not marijuana), and the White House Chief of Staff resigned in an influence-peddling scandal. In 1958, House and Senate Republicans suffered huge losses that would put majority status out of reach for years to come.
In 1966, the sixth year of the combined Kennedy-Johnson administration, Vietnam and race riots wiped out all the gains the Congressional Democrats had made in the 1964 Johnson landslide. Eight years later, Republicans suffered similar consequences because of Watergate, economic woes, and the energy crisis.
Reagan was relatively lucky. In 1986, the GOP dropped some House seats and lost control of the Senate — but things could have been much worse. Iran-Contra would badly damage the President’s political standing, but the story did not break until just after the midterm election.
A few months ago, it looked as if the Democrats might defy history by picking up some seats in the House. Some optimists in their ranks even spoke of retaking the majority. Their chances, however, depended on keeping their favorite issues — education and health care — at the forefront of national attention. If anything got in the way, their bright prospects would suddenly turn dark.
In August came the Lewinsky eclipse. Democrats could no longer get the press to play up their yarns about how HMOs are killing grandmothers; now they had to answer questions about President Clinton’s lies. In California, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer clearly outpointed Republican challenger Matt Fong during their first televised debate. The next day’s press coverage, however, portrayed her as being on the defensive over the Clinton issue.
Republicans are likely to gain not because they have a brilliant strategy or a compelling message, but because the six-year curse has stricken the Democrats. With increased majorities in the next Congress, Republicans will have an opportunity to regain control of the national agenda and prove that they are worthy of staying in power. Next time, they can’t count on luck to win their victory: they’ll have to earn it.
John J. Pitney, Jr. is an Associate Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.