The Blessing in the Midterm Curse

No president since Andrew Johnson has escaped office without seeing his party defeated in midterms at least once. It seems nearly certain now that President Biden will be the 28th in a row to face this very public rejection—potentially a punishing one.

The swings we saw last week in the electorates of New Jersey and Virginia from state elections four years ago were tidal in volume. If they prove predictive of the size of the coming midterm shift, it would result in net gains of 30 or so seats for House Republicans. Democrats are clinging to a three-vote majority, so the members of the blue team are already feeling seasick in anticipation of another wave election. If Democrats do lose that many seats, 2022 would join the five worst midterm beatings a president’s party has taken in the modern political era—1982, 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2018.

All five of those can all rightly be understood as backlashes against the perceived radicalism of the party in power. And that is certainly the narrative Republicans are pushing for 2022. But the midterm monsoons of recent history can be better understood as expressions of frustration with the unrealized promises of the president and his party. It wasn’t the radicalism, per se, but the failure of radical ideas to produce success.

Each of the five biggest midterm losses came in the wake of radical initiatives from the sitting president. Reaganomics, Hillarycare, the invasion of Iraq, Obamacare, and Donald Trump’s governance by pathological id were all big gambles. Only one actually paid off.

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