President Obama has warned Democratic voters not to be apathetic. “If the other side does win,” he told an audience in Wisconsin on Sept. 28, “they will spend the next two years fighting for the very same policies that led to this recession in the first place.” But Obama probably understated the case. Over the last century, a series of pivotal midterm elections has severely undermined liberal policies—at just those moments when it seemed they were flourishing. With polls predicting strong Republican gains, this election looks to be another such turnaround.
1938 A conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans expanded its numbers in the House and Senate after President Franklin Roosevelt unsuccessfully tried to purge conservatives from his party. The mood on Capitol Hill changed dramatically. “There was a time when I would have bled and died for him [FDR],” lamented Montana Sen. James Murray, a liberal Democrat who had strongly supported the New Deal, “but in view of the way he has been acting I don’t want to have any more dealings with him and I just intend to stay away from him and he can do as he pleases.”
1946 Republicans regained control of the House and Senate through a national campaign that claimed Democrats were not tough enough on communism, and criticized excessive wartime regulations such as price controls. “Bow your heads, folks,” The New Republic concluded, “conservatism has hit America.” The Republican congressional majority, though it would last only two years, ensured that there would be no further expansion of FDR’s domestic agenda. The campaign also intensified partisan wars, pushing President Harry Truman to the right on national-security questions.
1966 The midterms were devastating to President Lyndon Johnson, who realized that his project to build a Great Society had come to an end. Republicans focused on three issues: Vietnam, inflation, and race relations. Sizable GOP gains reinvigorated the conservative coalition and boosted the reputation of former VP Richard Nixon, who had stumped for candidates across the country. RNC chair Ray Bliss boasted, “This press conference…will be a little different from my first one, when you were asking me if the Republican Party would survive…It looks to me…as if we have a live elephant.”
1978 Though Democrats retained control of Congress, the midterms were an important victory for the right. Several Democratic senators who had voted for President Jimmy Carter’s Panama Canal Treaties were defeated. In the South a cohort of younger Republicans came into office, all aiming to move the GOP to the right. They were determined to confront, rather than compromise with, Democratic leaders. In 1979 Carter backed further away from liberal domestic initiatives and became more hawkish on foreign policy.
1994 The Republican takeover of the House and Senate shocked Democrats, who had been in control of both chambers for all but six years since 1954. The new GOP majority, with leaders who came from the conservative wing of the party, marked the completion of a conservative revolution on Capitol Hill. President Bill Clinton would soon declare that “the era of big government is over.” Republican leaders would use partisan tools, such as the power of committee chairs to limit participation by Democrats during the markup of bills, to diminish the influence of their opponents.
Zelizer is a history professor at Princeton University. He is the author of Jimmy Carter (The American Presidents Series).