Derek Catsam: The Unpredictability of an Unhappy Electorate

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Derek Catsam is a history professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin in Odessa, Tex., and a writer for the History News Service.]

The confetti has begun to settle after the latest election. The Democrats have congratulated themselves, the Republicans have pointed fingers, and the pundits have tried to convince us that they knew all along that this was precisely what would happen.

One of the preferred approaches of conservative pundits has been to whistle past the graveyard by asserting that the Democratic victories of Nov. 7 represent little more than the typical tilting of a midterm election toward the party out of power. But with apologies to Tolstoy, what we have instead learned is that while happy electorates are all alike, every unhappy electorate is unhappy in its own way.

The last time American voters had a chance to exercise their "six year itch" came in 1998. With President Clinton knee-deep in the Lewinsky scandal and entering his lame duck phase, Republicans expected what they believed to be the customary gains of the sixth-year midterm election. Instead they got stasis in the Senate: Three incumbent Democrats lost their seats, but so too did three incumbent Republicans. The Democrats actually gained five seats in the House of Representatives.

By contrast, in 1986, during Ronald Reagan's last term in office, the Democrats gained a whopping eight seats in the Senate to retake control of the upper chamber, but they gained only five seats in the House. The 1986 election marked the first time since World War II that the Senate had changed hands after a second-term midterm.

These elections -- 1986, 1998 and 2006 -- mark the only three times in nearly a half century in which midterm elections took place in the second term of a full two-term presidency. The wide variation in results hardly reveals any noteworthy trends, never mind that similarly situated past elections should have led us to expect such a dramatic shift in the political landscape.

The reality is that the electorate has spoken loudly, delivering the Republicans what President Bush rightly called a thumping because of his party's setback. The president's last two years are likely to be characterized either by partisan rancor or by delicate maneuverings.

In a nationwide election involving 435 House seats and 33 in the Senate, it would be silly to say that any one issue determined the direction of the vote. Nonetheless, high on the list of issues that helped to sway independent voters, to draw some reluctant Democrats to the polls, and to change the minds of (or dissuade from voting) discontented conservatives, would have to be the mismanagement of the war in Iraq, the perceived arrogance of the administration and the politicization of terrorism. Other Americans would surely point to fiscal irresponsibility, high gas prices and ongoing displeasure with the cultural wars waged by the GOP right. Conservatives may dispute the validity of the charges against them, but it would be foolhardy for them to assert that voter discontentment came down to something as facile as historical inevitability.

Democrats, on the other hand, would be wise not to take the recent election outcome as a clear mandate that Americans support an aggressive liberal agenda. A vote against the handling of the war is not necessarily a vote for immediate withdrawal. A vote against the administration's arrogance is not a vote to replace that arrogance with hubris from the left.

If some Republicans are drawing the wrong historical lessons from the election, Democrats could learn a true one from the last seismic midterm shift, the one that came with the Republican takeover of Congress after the 1994 elections. In the wake of that overwhelming victory, Republican leaders mistook the mood of the population for one calling for a "Republican revolution." But Americans rarely desire revolution. As a consequence the Republicans quickly overstepped their bounds and this led to Democratic gains of eight seats in the House in 1996 and eventually to the modest Democratic gains in the 1998 elections.

In sum, hiding behind false historical parallels may allow Republicans to put a brave face on their recent repudiation. But an unhappy electorate is unhappy in its own way. Now it's up to the Democrats to see if they can draw the right lessons from American expressions of their current unhappiness.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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