August 26, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

If the Congress is unchanged by the midterms, it will signal the return of an old norm

In the 20th century, six midterms flipped the Congress.


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The congressional elections are coming. By now, you have been told many times over about the conventional wisdom, to wit: the party that controls the White House loses one or both chambers of the Congress. The Democrats currently have a trifecta. Therefore, the CW tells us, we can expect fortune to favor the Republicans.

The conventional wisdom constitutes a narrative. This narrative is about change. Will Joe Biden succumb to history or will he beat the odds by adding to Democratic ranks? In the weeks ahead, the press and pundits corps will track polling in search of signs of an answer. 

The parties have flipped the Congress every midterm election for the last 12 years. But a wider historical perspective reveals something else that alternates – periods in which the parties closely compete for control and periods where one party dominates. 

But what if the searching is misguided? What if change is the wrong point of focus? The conventional wisdom is based on the outcomes of history, to be sure, but the conventional wisdom has also been quite choosy. There are indeed many instances of House or Senate flipping. But there are many instances of both staying the same.

The long view of history
Here are two facts to bear in mind. 

One is that the Congress did not change after the following midterm elections, according to my friend Bill Scher, who writes for Politico magazine, the Washington Monthly, RealClear Politics and others. 

Since 1900, they are: 1902, 1906, 1914, 1922, 1926, 1930, 1934, 1938, 1942, 1950, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1990 and 1998. 

That’s 19 midterms. There were 25 in the 20th century.

Six midterms flipped the Congress in 100 years.

The other fact is that an unchanging Congress had staying power under the right conditions. According to National Constitution Center’s Scott Bomboy, the Democrats had total control of the Congress for 14 years prior to the 1946 midterms when the Republicans finally snapped the streak. For the next decade, the Congress flipped election to election. Starting in 1954, however, the Democrats once again held both chambers, this time for the next 26 years. That’s 13 consecutive elections. That includes six midterms. 

Flipping the Congress was unusual in the 20th century. When one party did, it had to struggle to maintain control. But then another period would begin in which the other party would prevail 76 percent of the time. Nothing changing was the norm, not the exception.

An old norm returns?
The conventional wisdom is correct in that the last 30 years or so, starting in 1994, have seen the Congress flip more than it didn’t flip. That year, during Bill Clinton’s first term, the Republicans won complete control of the Congress for the first time since 1952. 

Nothing changed in 1998, but afterward the parties took turns. 

In 2006, the Democrats took the Congress while a Republican was in the White House. In 2010, the Republicans took the House when a Democrat was president. In 2014, the GOP had total control after taking the Senate. In 2018, a Republican president lost the House. (2002 is a relative fluke. A Republican president gained the House as a consequence, almost certainly, of the nation preparing for war.)

When the Washington press and pundits corps talk about history working against the Democrats, they mean history going back about 30 years. That’s a long time. But if we go back farther, and put that period in a broader historical context, we can see that it has a lot in common with another period in which the parties also took turns.

That period was 1946 to 1954.

Prior to that, however, the Democrats controlled the Congress. Afterward, until 1994, ditto. The period of 1946 to 1954, when the Congress flipped back and forth, is an island in the mid-20th century surrounded by a sea of Democratic dominance. (Nothing changed in 1982, but the Republicans lost both chambers in the 1986 midterms.)

You see where I’m going? 

For a brief eight-year period in the middle of the last century, the Republicans struggled for control of the Congress. We are living in a similar period in which the Republicans struggle for control. Over 12 years, since 2006, the Congress flipped midterm to midterm. 

But this period will end at some point, just as similar periods ended. Eventually, our time of close competition for control of the Congress will stop and a new period of one-party dominance will start. 

Nothing changing will once again be the norm.

No more conceding their point
Are we experiencing a transition? 

Will the Congress remain unchanged after the midterms?

Well, consider what respective Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, said in advance of their first midterms. 

Before 2010, Obama was putting space, a lot of space, between himself and the world-changing Affordable Care Act. So were his fellow Democrats. Obama was moreover talking about the need to balance the budget and reform Social Security and Medicare. In other words, Obama conceded to the GOP’s policy views.

This week, Joe Biden enacted a policy by which $10,000 in student loan debt will be forgiven for every borrower earning less than $125,000 a year (or families earning less than $250,000). The Republican reaction to Biden’s announcement was pretty much the same as the reaction to Obamacare – it’s free stuff for freeloaders.

Did Biden concede to the GOP’s policy views?

Hell no. 

After a Wednesday press conference:

Reporter: Is (college debt forgiveness) unfair to people who paid their student loans or chose not to take out loans? 

Biden: Is it fair to people who, in fact, do not own multi-billion-dollar businesses if they see one of these guys getting all the tax breaks? Is that fair? What do you think?

In other words, the government is, for a change, standing on the side of normal people, instead of the side of the very obscenely rich.

Not this time
I don’t mean to make Obama sound feeble. What he was doing is what all Democrats had been doing since 1994 – beginning the conversation from the Republican view and working leftward.

Biden did no such thing Wednesday. More importantly, none of the other Democrats seem to be. Congressional Democrats ran away from Obamacare. They endorsed Obama’s offer to “reform” (ie, privatize) popular social insurance programs. Not this time.

To be sure, some conservative Democrats running in swing states say they don’t agree with the president, but that’s almost certainly all talk, no walk. Fact is, even if you personally disagree with college debt forgiveness, you or someone you know will benefit from it. 

And in any case, the Republicans blew up their own argument. 

One of the fascist members of the GOP House conference said forgiving debts is “completely unfair.” The White House’s Twitter account quote-tweeted her comment, saying that, “Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene had $183,504 in PPP loans forgiven,” referring to the former president’s Paycheck Protection Program, which floated businesses that were shuttered during the pandemic.

Such an aggressive posture suggests that the president and the Democrats think they have the advantage going into the midterms. 

Alternating historical periods
Right now, all the talk is about gaining or losing seats, especially in the House, where about a dozen seats are the difference between a majority and a minority. But if the period we’re living in is ending, then change may not be ahead. The future may be nothing changing.

If that’s the case, then perhaps we are in a transition between periods of one-party dominance of the Congress. Indeed, we may have already transitioned and are now living in a new period. We will only know where we are after looking back at where we were. 

The parties have flipped the Congress every midterm election for the last 12 years. But a wider historical perspective reveals something else that alternates – periods in which the parties closely compete for control and periods where one party dominates the Congress. 

Let’s hope the latter is already here.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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