A History Democrats Are Doomed to Repeat?

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
February 2, 2021

By my calculations, I have spent almost three-quarters of my 67 years around politicians. I’ve observed their behavior, their successes, and their failures fairly closely. Yet I still wonder if I’ll ever completely understand them. Let me explain.

American voters may have once loved their elected officials in Washington, but that now seems ages ago. In recent years these fickle voters seem to have lost all patience and are keeping politicians on a very short leash.

Let’s look at midterm elections for starters. They’re almost always referenda on the sitting president. In the post–World War II era, the party holding the White House has averaged losses of three Senate and 22 House seats. More relevant to next year, the average in the midterms of a president’s first is just one Senate and 23 House seats lost (it is the midterms in presidents’ second terms that are often bloodbaths in the Senate, the class of senators last up when that president was first elected). Given the papyrus-thin Democratic majorities, even the average outcome would be catastrophic for them, costing them majorities in both chambers.

But those numbers understate the volatility that exists for parties holding the White House. Each of the past four presidents have lost majorities in both the Senate and the House:

  • In 1994, Bill Clinton’s 1st term midterm election, the Democrats suffered a net loss of 54 seats and control of the House, a chamber they held for 40 years. Democrats also lost eight Senate seats and control of that body as well, where they had won majorities in 17 of the previous 20 elections.
  • In 2006, George W. Bush lost control of both the House and Senate in his second-term midterm, losing six Senate and 30 House seats.
  • In Barack Obama’s first midterm in 2010, Democrats lost 64 House seats and their majority. Despite losing six seats, they managed to hold onto their majority. But they coughed that up in 2014, when Obama’s party lost nine more Senate seats, along with another 13 House seats for good measure.
  • In Donald Trump’s only midterm, Republicans lost 42 seats in the House and control there, but with an exceedingly generous Senate map featuring 10 Democratic Senate seats in states Trump carried (only one GOP seat was in a state Hillary Clinton won), Republicans lost one of their own seats but dethroned two Democrats for a net gain of one. When Trump was running for reelection last year, his party lost three Senate seats though they enjoyed a net gain of either 11 or 12 seats, depending upon a recount in New York’s 22nd District.

When a party holds the presidency and majorities in both the House and Senate, human nature and political pressure encourage them to either overreach with their agenda, become arrogant, or both. Self-restraint usually goes out the window.

Notice that seven out of the last eight times a chamber flipped, it was in the midterm, not in a presidential year. Only twice in the last 50 years has a chamber flipped in a presidential year: Democrats lost the Senate when Jimmy Carter was losing reelection in 1980 and Republicans lost it as Joe Biden defeated Trump in the most recent cycle.

The last president not to lose a congressional majority was George H.W. Bush, due to the obvious fact that he never enjoyed a congressional majority in either chamber to begin with. Yet despite his loss in 1992, the GOP suffered a net loss of just two Senate seats while gaining two in the House during his presidency.

Why? Perhaps because Bush exercised policy restraint rather than overreaching. He struck a landmark budget deal with a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1990, just weeks before the midterm election, a move that may have cost him reelection two years later but put the country on a course for its only balanced federal budgets since 1969. The country enjoyed seven consecutive years of declining deficits beginning in 1991, followed by balanced budgets for four years from 1998 to 2001.

Given the war on the coronavirus and economic devastation caused by the pandemic, it’s hard to justify a push for that kind of fiscal responsibility today. But the moral of the story is that Bush worked with the opposition party and avoided the familiar midterm election trap.

Also noteworthy: The last two midterm elections that were not bloodbaths for the president’s party in either the House or Senate were in 1998 and 2002.

After his 1994 losses, President Clinton began a strategy of “triangulation,” positioning himself roughly equidistant between the more liberal Democrats in Congress and the conservative Republican majorities on the Hill. Rather, it was the Republican Congress that overreached by impeaching Clinton and trying to remove him from office. (Note to the future: If you don’t have both broad and deep public support to impeach, and particularly if you can’t convict and remove, maybe think twice about that.) Hence, Clinton’s successful 1998 midterm.

In 2002, President George W. Bush’s party faced the voters 15 months after 9/11, when his final preelection job-approval rating was a robust 63 percent.

Members of Congress always pine for their side winning the White House. Yet members in competitive states and districts always face greater political jeopardy when their team holds the presidency.

Knowing this history, logic would suggest a more modest agenda, rather than swinging for the fences (I watched a couple of episodes of Ken Burns’s fantastic Baseball series last night).

For the coronavirus relief package, the question is whether Biden and his party settle for a half loaf (knowing that several slices of a smaller package was served just a few months ago) and try to get the other half later, or make a totally futile effort for the whole loaf now. That’s not only a legislative impossibility given their microscopic Senate and House majorities, but it will undoubtedly weaken them for subsequent fights. My guess is that Biden’s 44 years of experience in, or presiding over the Senate, is pushing him towards cutting a deal, even as many other Democrats push him towards the edge.

As well-intentioned as they are, it is really hard to understand some of these folks sometimes.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on January 29, 2021.