By Dennis Riley
November 4 was a pretty rough night for Democrats. Some of the blame has to go to Madison—James Madison.
With a lot of help from his “friends” at the Constitutional Convention that summer, James Madison gave us a system that created a separation of power, overlaid it with plenty of checks and balances, and seasoned it with a strong commitment to federalism, thereby setting the stage for November 4, 2014 (and a lot of other Tuesday nights over the past 75 years).
No, James Madison didn’t make the American people “fed up” with Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, or Ronald Reagan, or Gerald Ford (standing in for Richard Nixon), or Lyndon Johnson (again a stand-in, this time for John Kennedy) or Dwight Eisenhower, or Harry Truman (standing in for Franklin Roosevelt) or Roosevelt himself.
Madison and the others in Philadelphia split powers between the legislative and executive branches, making sure each could block the other. They created a two-house legislature with one of those houses (the Senate) consisting of two members from each state elected for six-year terms with only one-third of the body elected in each two-year cycle. Political parties, international events, domestic politics, ambitious politicians, swarming news media, and a fickle public made sure that one President after another has had to take the kind of drubbing that President Obama took this November.
The History of Year Six
FDR’s “defeat” in 1938 wasn’t of quite the same cast as those of Ronald Reagan in 1986, George W. Bush in 2006, or Barack Obama in 2014. The Democrats did not lose the Senate in 1938. But from FDR’s point of view, they might as well have.
After his landslide win in 1936, Roosevelt came up with his plan to expand the size of the Supreme Court. Then he decided to campaign against several sitting Senators, many of them Southerners, meaning he was entering Democratic primaries. All of them won, and all of them came back far less committed to the New Deal or anything else FDR wanted.
Harry Truman had only been President for a little over a year when the Republicans swept both houses of Congress in 1946. Roosevelt might have held back the tide had he lived, but Churchill wasn’t able to in Great Britain, so who can say?
Eisenhower’s Year Six midterms were also a bit different from those of Reagan, Bush and Obama. The Republicans had lost both houses of Congress in 1954. But they lost a whole lot more in 1958. While 1966 was not Year Six of the Johnson administration, it was Year Six of a Democrat in the White House. Like FDR’s Democrats in 1938, LBJ’s Democrats didn’t lose control of either house of congress, but they did lose so many seats that Johnson decided not to run again in 1968.
The Republican party, left for dead in 1964, saw its standard bearer Richard Nixon win a three-way race over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. Richard Nixon never made it to his Year Six midterms, but there is no question that the historic defeat suffered by the Republicans in the 1974 election can be laid at the recently resigned President’s feet.
We can’t know, of course, how different that election would have been had there been no Watergate and no resignation, but a genuinely terrible economy combined with a general public unease about Nixon would almost surely have eroded the Republican position in Congress.
Ronald Reagan took a Republican Senate with him in 1980, but the party lost that majority in the infamous Year Six, which was 1986. As the Republicans had in Ike’s first midterms in 1954, the Democrats lost both houses in Bill Clinton’s first midterms in 1994. Year Six was not as hard on Clinton as it was on Eisenhower, however. Democrats won back a few House seats and held onto what they had in the Senate. The real casualty of that Year Six was Newt Gingrich, who resigned his Speakership and his House seat in the wake of his party’s disappointing showing.
The Republicans held majorities in both houses heading into the 2006 midterms and were thoroughly swamped. At least they thought it was thorough until they got the results of 2008. The Democrats lost their House majority in 2010 and then their Senate majority in 2014 – Year Six of the Obama Presidency.
Other than putting November 4, 2014, in some sort of historical perspective, is there any point to the 700-plus words you have read to get this far? Yes.
First, Presidents and Congresses are not expected to get along. In James Madison’s own words, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Our governing structure is set up for Presidential combat with Congress. We should not be so surprised when it happens.
Second, the pendulum-like nature of American politics should not be underestimated. On election night 1964, the line of folks ready to attend the wake for the Republican Party was long and loud. On election night in 1966, things looked a bit different. On election night in 1968, Richard Nixon, the man who only six years earlier had told a press conference that the media would “not have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore,” was about to become President of the United States. In 1974 it appeared the Democrats were going to institutionalize their dominance, and in 1980 they lost the White House and one house of Congress. And on it goes through George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton, to George W. Bush, and now to Barack Obama. Finally, Presidents do not dry up and blow away when they get beat up in the Year Six midterms. FDR won two more terms and led us through WWII. Harry Truman came back and won the Presidency. Ronald Reagan signed a historic deal with the soon-to-disappear Soviet Union. Bill Clinton survived in 1996, was impeached but not convicted, and is now a Democratic folk hero. George W. Bush pushed troops into Iraq and is discussing his brother Jeb’s possible run for President. What will happen for Barack Obama? Stay tuned.
Enough out of me.
Dennis Riley has been teaching courses about American government and politics since the year Richard Nixon was inaugurated as President of the United States.