Here’s a silver lining for President Donald Trump if Republicans lose either of their majorities on Capitol Hill in November: You have to go all the way back to Herbert Hoover to find a President who lost a majority in Congress during his first term and then lost re-election.
And he was dealing with a stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Trump’s economy is humming.
The story of the 2018 midterms is not yet fully written, but if an expected blue wave ends up sweeping Democrats into the majority, there’s at least one reason Trump should not despair:
Most Presidents who lose one or both houses in their first midterms go on to re-election.
Call it the Harry Truman model, since he took a first-term rebuke by voters and turned it to his advantage, running for re-election by deftly attacking Congress.
“If Democrats should take back one or both houses, he could go all Harry Truman on them,” said Barbara Perry, who is director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
Trump could be a master at vilifying Democrats, particularly if they take a sweeping election victory and overplay their hand, she said, using the example of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, in the 1990s.
It’s hard to call rebounding from a midterm election loss – Barack Obama called his a “shellacking” – a trend, since elections happen only every two years.
Those are both Democrats, and Trump’s obviously a Republican. But the point is that what happens in one midterm election certainly doesn’t presage the next general election.
Each election – quite obviously – is unique.
When Obama’s Democrats lost their majority in 2010, it was after a string of legislative accomplishments, including a massive stimulus to kick-start the economy out of the Great Recession, a Wall Street overhaul bill and the Affordable Care Act.
It was a tea party movement born of backlash to those policies – and others that Democrats had hoped to pass, such as a cap-and-trade proposal to deal with climate change and the promise of immigration revisions – that swept Democrats out of power.
Republicans have much slimmer majorities now than Democrats did then. Even with all levers of government under their control under Trump, they’ve been unable to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They did pass landmark tax legislation, but the additional money many Americans will have in their pockets has not led to a broad backlash against it.
Rather, Democrats today are more likely to vote on a visceral reaction to Trump or to protect some of those accomplishments Democrats achieved in the first two productive years of the Obama administration. Health care, notably, has played a huge role in Democrats’ 2018 platform.
Interestingly, Bill Clinton’s Democrats lost their majority after an equally active two years. They passed a crime bill, which has not aged and for which there is an ongoing bipartisan effort to undo aspects of. It was in that two years that the country also entered NAFTA. Trump is on the verge of a renegotiating that controversial but pivotal trade deal.
Republicans refused, for the most part, to work with Obama after taking then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s gavel. It took the GOP until 2014 to take the Senate. It was a different story for Clinton, who despite his impeachment did work with Republican majorities, triangulating legislation.
Like what you're reading?
George W. Bush, rather than lose seats in his first midterm, gained them, bucking history in the wake of 9/11 and selling the war in Iraq hard in the lead-up to 2002. Their votes in favor of military action in Iraq haunted Democratic Sens. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton in their respective general election bids years later. But just like the march to war helped Bush gain politically in 2002, backlash to the American blood and treasure spent there cost him the majority in both the House and Senate four years later, in the middle of his second term.
George H.W. Bush faced a hostile Congress for his one term. Ronald Reagan won the White House and Republicans took the Senate in 1980 and held it until after the 1986 midterm election in his second term. Jimmy Carter lost a relatively modest 15 House and three Senate seats, but not the majority, during his midterm. But then he lost his bid for re-election.
Before that, Democrats had maintained majorities in both chambers through a slew of presidents from both parties back to the 1950s.
Dwight Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon, are a good example of a midterm loss and general election rebound. They swept into office after the 1952 election and their Republicans seized slim majorities in both the House and Senate, only to lose them both two years later in the midst of the Red Scare and a soft economy. Eisenhower, despite a debilitating heart attack in 1955, got re-elected anyway.
Truman came into office with solid approval, but he simply was not FDR and as voters got to know him, his ratings dropped, according to Perry. Plus, after World War II, soldiers were coming home expecting jobs and housing, but both were lacking, Perry said.
Democrats also lost the House and Senate for two years after Truman took over, but despite the famous wrong newspaper headline declaring otherwise, Republican Thomas Dewey did not defeat Truman.
“He goes out on the stump in 1948 and becomes ‘give ‘em hell Harry,’ ” Perry said. “This is one key to how to come back from a shellacking is to turn against that Congress from the other party.”
Before Truman, during the Depression, is another long stretch of Democrats in control on Capitol Hill, with FDR in the White House. All the way back to Hoover, who as we’ve mentioned had serious problems. Republicans lost the House during his midterm and then the White House and the Senate two years later. But as Perry points out, the economy was in a free fall and a quarter of the country was out of work. Hoover’s politics were out of step with that time.
“In the case of Hoover his ideology simply was totally out of step with what the country needed at that time,” she said.
Woodrow Wilson lost Democratic majorities, but only in his second term. And that came just days before the end of World War I and during his attempt to create the League of Nations.
At this point we’re so far from modern politics – before the automobile and airplanes, much less the internet – as to make these comparisons completely academic and not very helpful.
But William Howard Taft did lose a 16-year Republican majority at his midterm. He didn’t win re-election. Before Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, unlike any president mentioned heretofore, served two terms (though he was elected to one; he took office after the assassination of William McKinley) and had majorities of the same party in both houses of Congress for his entire time in the White House.
Prior to the 20th century, Grover Cleveland lost the majority after two years as President. But it was his second trip to the White House. He held the House during his first first term. Rutherford B. Hayes lost the Senate but not the House. Chester A. Arthur lost the House, but he had taken over for the murdered James Garfield and was never actually elected.
Abraham Lincoln enjoyed majorities similar to both Roosevelts but the asterisk for him is that the size of the House and Senate shrank during the Civil War. Lincoln succeeded Democrat James Buchanan, an appeaser of the South who served one term and lost control of the House during his midterm, but Buchanan was not on the ballot in 1860. Trump, from the looks of things, has every intention of being there in 2020.
If he does run, and if the Republicans lose Congress in November, Trump will want to avoid the fate that befell President Benjamin Harrison after his election in 1888, in which he decisively won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote. Harrison, a Republican, lost his GOP House majority in the midterms, then lost in his bid for re-election. Harrison was defeated in 1892 by the same man he had beaten in 1888: Democrat Grover Cleveland. But for a repeat of this scenario to occur, Trump would have to lose in 2020 to … Hillary Clinton.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Taft unsuccessfully sought re-election in 1912.
CNN’s Travis Caldwell contributed to this report.