In the last century, Republicans have posted large gains in midterm elections during the first term of a Democratic president five times. The elections of 1914, 1946, 1966, 1994, and 2010 all reflected popular disenchantment with big-government liberalism, and with the newly elected (or in the case of Truman, the newly sworn-in) Democratic president’s promotion of the same.
What happened next? The history isn’t encouraging for conservatives. In the three cases in which the incumbent Democratic president stood for election two years later—Woodrow Wilson in 1916, Harry Truman in 1948, and Bill Clinton in 1996—each prevailed. And in 1968, when Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the race, his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, almost came back to win in November. So an off-year congressional election reflecting dissatisfaction with a liberal agenda doesn’t automatically produce victory two years later for a governing conservatism at the presidential level.
Of course, one could argue that in none of these cases did the GOP offer the electorate much in the way of a governing conservative vision. Supreme Court justice Charles Evans Hughes, a compromise choice at the 1916 Republican convention, came close to defeating Woodrow Wilson by running a cautious campaign in what was then a GOP-tilting country—but he fell just short. In 1948, Thomas E. Dewey ran a cautious campaign in what had become a Democratic-leaning nation, counting on exhaustion after 16 years of Democratic rule to sweep him in—and he too lost.
Indeed, not only did Truman come back to defeat Dewey in 1948, but Democrats retook Congress, the New Deal coalition held, and (after the Eisenhower interregnum) the stage was set for a further massive expansion of government with the Great Society.
Could 1948 repeat itself? Can Barack Obama reinvent himself as a Truman-like, fighting Midwestern populist? Will Republicans once again nominate an establishment-approved, man-on-a-wedding-cake Northeastern governor who had run and lost before (Romney lost in the battle for the GOP nomination in 2008; Dewey lost the general election in 1944)? Would Romney run a Dewey-like campaign against Obama and lose? It could happen.
In 1968, the country was in such disarray that LBJ stood down, and his vice president staggered to the nomination. Republicans nominated Richard Nixon—a talented and impressive old pro who’d held high office, but was burdened with lots of political baggage, someone conservatives liked because liberals hated him, even though he wasn’t exactly an all-out conservative. Like Hughes and Dewey, Nixon ran a cautious general election campaign, counting on dissatisfaction with the state of the nation to put him over the top. It did, barely. Would today’s Nixon, Newt Gingrich, be at least as good a general election candidate as Nixon? Would he win? Perhaps. Would he govern more successfully than Nixon? Perhaps.
In 1996, the country was at peace, the economy was coming back, and Bill Clinton had pivoted to the center. Bob Dole asked where was the outrage, and the answer turned out to be that it was pretty muted. Clinton won easily. The good news for Republicans is that Obama has shown less of an inclination to move to the middle than Clinton. And since Obamacare passed while Hillarycare didn’t, Obama-care will be on the ballot in 2012 (unless the Supreme Court throws it out, and even then the question of health care will be central to the campaign). So Obama can’t walk away from his big-government agenda even if he wanted to, which he apparently doesn’t. Still, Republicans would do well to produce a better presidential candidate than Bob Dole—around whose neck, we might recall, the Democrats had wrapped . . . Speaker Newt Gingrich.
These analogies are of course very imperfect. History doesn’t repeat itself. But it does provide some lessons. One might be this: GOP primary voters should test the current frontrunners. They should try to satisfy themselves that Mitt Romney isn’t Tom Dewey redux. They should try to assure themselves that Newt Gingrich can perform at least as well as Richard Nixon. And if they have doubts on both scores, it wouldn’t be a bad idea (1) to take another look at the rest of the field to make sure there are no diamonds in the rough (we’re afraid there aren’t), and (2) to keep an open mind about late entries into the race.
After all, at the end of January—after Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida—only 115 of the 1145 delegates needed to nominate will have been selected. And, given the proportional allotment rules for the early contests, those 115 delegates will themselves be dispersed among several candidates. Unless one candidate runs the table in January, there will be time in February for second thoughts, and for new entrants. Presidents’ Day weekend of 2012—still more than eight months from Election Day in November—would presumably be an appropriate time, if circumstances warrant, for a non-Hughes, non-Dewey, non-Nixon, non-Dole Republican candidate to present himself. A presidential election is a terrible thing to waste.