Observers seeking to put the 2018 midterm elections in some sort of historical perspective are probably put off by the general feeling that there has been no precedent for the Trump era and its peculiar political culture. But while there’s no one quite like the 45th president, there have been two occasions in the past 40 years when the party of a recently elected and very controversial Republican president faced the voters in a first midterm.
One of those, in 2002, was clearly an outlier. Overshadowed by 9/11 and George W. Bush’s subsequent astronomical “wartime” approval ratings (which peaked at 90 percent and were still at 68 percent in November of the next year), the 2002 elections were the extremely rare occasion when the president’s party gained both House and Senate seats in a midterm (the first such election since FDR in 1934). Bush’s comeuppance came in the next midterm, in 2006, after a very close reelection fight in 2004.
A more relevant precedent was 1982, the first midterm after the election of Ronald Reagan, whose ascension to the presidency in 1980 terrified liberals every bit as much as Trump’s did in 2016. After an upbeat battle to rein in the so-called “Reagan Revolution,” Democrats won the national House popular vote by nearly 12 percent (when it’s all said and done, Democrats will have won it this year by less than 8 percent). Thanks to an adverse landscape and some very close losses, Democrats didn’t make Senate gains (just as the same factors prevented them from making Senate gains this year). But the future looked quite good for the Donkey Party; in mid-1982, a horse-race poll for 1984 showed Ted Kennedy (then considered the Democratic front-runner) leading Reagan by six points.
In what should be a clear warning from history for today’s Democrats, Reagan rebounded from his midterm drubbing and carried 49 states in his landslide reelection. While a 2020 Trump landslide is very unlikely, the idea that the 45th president is toast barring some big Democratic screw-up is not supported by this most relevant precedent.
Those who think of Ronald Reagan as a sort of national father figure, beloved even by his political enemies, probably can’t imagine him being a precursor to Donald Trump. But as Frank Rich observed in 2016, the two Republican pols actually have a lot in common, beyond the obvious factor that they were both popular entertainment figures before running for office:
Both have marketed the same brand of outrage to the same angry segments of the electorate, faced the same jeering press, attracted some of the same battlefront allies (Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Phyllis Schlafly), offended the same elites (including two generations of Bushes), outmaneuvered similar political adversaries, and espoused the same conservative populism built broadly on the pillars of jingoistic nationalism, nostalgia, contempt for Washington, and racial resentment … Though Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan (“Let’s Make America Great Again”) is one word longer than Trump’s, that word reflects a contrast in their personalities — the avuncular versus the autocratic — but not in message. Reagan’s apocalyptic theme, “The Empire is in decline,” is interchangeable with Trump’s, even if the Gipper delivered it with a smile.
It took circumstances at least as fortuitous as those Trump took advantage of in 2016 to lift Reagan to the presidency in 1980: a very unpopular incumbent Democratic president (Jimmy Carter’s Gallup approval rating in November of 1980 was 31 percent) who had survived a tough primary challenge; a shaky economy with both high inflation and high unemployment; and an Iran hostage crisis that seemed to exemplify America’s weakness under Carter. And in office, Reagan pursued an agenda as audacious as Trump’s, similarly pursuing a big tax cut and a massive defense spending buildup — and pioneering the use of a budget device called “reconciliation” for packaging big chunks of legislation and avoiding Senate filibusters.
And so, for Democrats, the 1982 midterms were characterized by an intense desire to rein in this extremist administration, with its open ambitions of tearing down the New Deal and Great Society legacy and making the Cold War a good bit hotter. Rising unemployment rates gave them an opening, but Democratic comeback plans relied primarily on a backlash against
Reaganism and its implications for domestic and international politics.
As in 2018, Democrats had every reason to expect they’d gain House seats, but they had a tough row to hoe in the Senate, defending no less than 15 Senate seats in states that Reagan had carried two years earlier. Another similarity: Republicans had benefited from a recent landslide in the upper chamber, posting a net gain of 12 Senate seats in 1980 to take control (in 2014, Republicans netted nine seats and gained control).
It was a tense campaign marked by sharp partisanship. One GOP freshman House member from Long Island, John LeBoutillier, anticipated today’s Republicans by making the Democratic House leader — Speaker Tip O’Neill — the symbol of an opposition party that was “big, fat, and out of control.” Reagan personally barnstormed for Republican Senate candidates down the stretch, touting an alleged economic turnaround, as the New York Times reported late in the cycle:
President Reagan finished his Congressional campaign travels today by gratefully spreading the latest news of improved economic indicators as proof that “America is on her way back” from recession because of his economic program …
“We are doing everything we can to make a sick nation well again,” he declared, and he accused the Democrats of obstructing his program in order to “reap political gain” …
The President’s final two-day trip, designed to bolster Republican candidates in five Senate races, was a blend of patriotic rhetoric and optimistic talk on the economy. His speeches were replete with excerpts from letters from people writing rhapsodically about “how great” the nation is, “the best country in the world.”
There were no red hats or warnings about migrant caravans, but the general message and the political strategy were similar. So were the results.
Democrats picked up 26 House seats, which was pretty impressive because they held 243 going into the election (they won 55 percent of the national House popular vote). They also gained seven net governorships, precisely the number won in 2018. But Republicans won nearly every close Senate race (including all five that drew Reagan’s personal attention) and maintained their 54/46 margin in that chamber.
Democratic House gains did matter. Reagan was forced into signing two tax increases in addition to the one he signed in 1982 (a little detail that his later conservative hagiographers often forget). During his first two years in office, he’d only had one Supreme Court nomination, and chose the relatively moderate Sandra Day O’Conner. Democrats had reason to hope that the Reagan Revolution would be short-lived.
But then, as the 1984 Reagan reelection campaign put it in countless ads, it became “Morning in America” again. The economy steadily improved, with the “stagflation” of the late 1970s giving way to lower interest rates and a rising stock market. The foreign-policy crises of the Carter presidency abated.
Meanwhile, it became increasingly obvious that Georgian Jimmy Carter had just temporarily delayed the realignment of the South toward the Republican Party; the region avidly embraced Reagan. Democrats began to show signs of ideological and generational conflict, as former vice-president Walter Mondale, the front-runner for the presidential nomination, faced a stiff and sometimes divisive challenge from then-senator Gary Hart, who attacked the hegemony of old-school interest and constituency groups in the party. When Mondale finally won the nomination, he greatly overestimated the country’s fear of the big budget deficits Reagan was running (most of them attributable to his big 1981 tax cuts in combination with big increases in defense spending), and began his general election campaign with a ringing promise to raise taxes.
The 1984 Democratic campaign was simply a disaster. After his party’s mixed performance in the 1982 midterms, Reagan was reelected with 56 percent of the popular vote, and lost only Mondale’s home state of Minnesota.
In retrospect, the 1984 Reagan landslide is understandable as a bit of an outlier, as the shifting tectonic plates of a national partisan realignment reached a point in 1984 in which Republicans were gaining a lot more ancestrally southern Democratic voters than they were losing ancestrally GOP voters elsewhere. By 1986 Democrats had reconquered the Senate while never losing the House (or a majority of governors and state legislators). After a disappointing 1988 presidential election, Democrats climbed back into the White House in 1992 and the parties have been relatively balanced ever since. But it was a long, hard road back from the Reagan Revolution for the Democratic Party. And that, rather than big policy accomplishments, was principally why Reagan became such a mythic figure to both Republicans and Democrats. He “normalized” the hard-core conservatism that had been repudiated when LBJ crushed Barry Goldwater (for whom Reagan campaigned) in 1964, and made it an electoral winner. And coping with “Reaganism” became a divisive quandary for Democrats who weren’t sure whether to “reform” the New Deal legacy or expand on its social-democratic offerings. Disagreements over that basic question continue to divide Democrats today.
Now, 2020 isn’t going to be just like 1984. For one thing, Republicans were already benefiting from a strong economy in 2018; it’s just as likely to have gone south by the next presidential election as it is to have grown significantly better. In addition, the electorate is vastly more polarized than it was when Reagan faced Mondale: It’s hard to imagine anything happening in the short term that would make states like California or New York go Republican in 2020.
But while Trump’s not going to carry 49 states, there’s no inherent reason he he cannot again win the 30 states he took against Hillary Clinton. Reagan’s job approval rating going into the 1982 midterms was 43 percent, about where Trump’s is right now. Republicans have united in support of Trump despite their earlier misgivings, much as Republicans united behind Reagan after denying him one presidential nomination in 1976 (when he was defeated by appointed president Gerald Ford) and expressing a lot of doubts about him in 1980.
The key variable for Democrats heading toward 2020 is what they do, as much as it is what Trump does. Campaigning, as Walter Mondale did in 1984, on the restoration of a pre-Reagan liberal hegemony, probably won’t cut it unless the economy sours or House Democrats (or Robert Mueller) put Trump into a defensive crouch over the circumstances of the 2016 election, administration corruption, or the president’s own vast array of misdeeds, personal and political. After watching Mondale make his tax-increase pledge at the climax of the 1984 Democratic National Convention, I remarked that the most appropriate benediction for the event would be a prayer to St. Jude, the Apostle of Lost Causes. And that was just a year and a half after those encouraging 1982 midterms. It’s time for Democrats to get smart.