Now that the 2018 midterm elections are in the history books (for the most part — what’s up with you, Broward County?), two things are increasingly clear.
First, the split-decision results look less like an upheaval and more like a normal political science event. The Republican House losses tracked with the historical average for a party in power’s first midterm, and while it was unprecedented for that party to also expand its Senate majority, the margin there was rather ho-hum.
The results flew in the face of the media hype over a “blue wave” and a “red wall.” Neither materialized, and the result looked like a reversion to the historical mean. Whether it represents a temporary or permanent return to political ordinariness remains to be seen.
Second, it’s also true that the incumbent president tends to be re-elected despite those congressional losses. See: Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom presided over massive hemorrhaging in both chambers in their first off-year elections and yet were re-elected emphatically. President George W. Bush was also re-elected in 2004, but the GOP actually picked up seats in 2002 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
What, then, are the lessons of history for a unique president, Donald Trump, who won office by creating a new electoral coalition but now must deal with the consequences of fairly routine midterm results? How similarly situated presidents handled their new political realities might be instructive.
In the 1954 midterms, Democrats won back Senate and House control. President Eisenhower instructed his vice president, Richard Nixon, to ignore the results and build on themes of national strength, specifically security and prosperity. Mr. Eisenhower thundered his way to a second term.
Once president himself, Mr. Nixon recalled that sage advice after Democrats performed well in the 1970 midterms; he championed an end to the Vietnam War, expanded global peace and prosperity, and cruised to re-election in 1972, carrying 49 states.
Heading into the 1982 midterms, President Reagan struggled with recession and a hard-charging Tip O’Neill-led House of Representatives, and the GOP sunk. Two years later, however, Mr. Reagan built on the strength themes of economic recovery and Cold War security and won re-election in a historic landslide.
(Significantly, during his 1980 re-election campaign, President Carter spoke not of national strength but of a “crisis of confidence” in what came to be known as the “malaise” speech. He went down in flames to Mr. Reagan.)
In 2018, Mr. Trump is presiding over a booming economy and a stronger international position. Assuming those things continue, his political sell over the next two years will be relatively straightforward.
Of the historical models, the 1956 campaign is perhaps the most apt. One of Mr. Eisenhower’s more famous 1956 television ads featured a Washington, D.C., taxi driver peering directly into the camera as he asked: “I need him. Don’t you?”
The answer was obvious, and Mr. Eisenhower’s re-election victory was assured.
So it is with Mr. Trump, who should take a page from his predecessors and run against the Democratic House, with its inevitable #Resistance overreach, investigation obsession and increasing statist radicalism.
Their unavoidable legislative paralysis will be yet another political gift to Mr. Trump. They will be too distracted by their impeachment conspiracy to get anything substantive done. Any legislation they manage to pass with their narrow majority will head to a certain death in the Senate. This will allow Mr. Trump and the GOP to invoke both President Truman’s rallying cry against the “Do Nothing” Congress of 1948 and President Clinton’s attack on the Congress that had impeached him. Of course, Messrs. Truman and Clinton enjoyed an advantage not available to Mr. Trump: The protection of the press. But Mr. Trump is a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to their attacks.
Mr. Trump’s record — real economic expansion, a more robust military and international posture and tough (if unconventional) presidential leadership — is tailor-made for his re-election campaign. Regardless of whom the Democrats nominate, the majority of Americans will not choose a return to the Obama-era weakness, which they roundly rejected in 2016.
But much depends on Mr. Trump and his ability to channel the historical lessons of Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan. If he wants to remain a truly transformative figure, he will stand atop a record and message of national strength, which will likely deliver victory to him just as it had for his extraordinary predecessors.
• Monica Crowley is a columnist for The Washington Times.
Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.