I think the first midterm elections I paid close attention to were in 1982. I was in college, and no fan of Ronald Reagan or his policies. Two short years after the desolation of 1980, there was a sense of jubilation among liberals that Reagan's presidency was effectively at an end.
Tom Wicker in the New York Times wrote a premature obituary of the administration:
There is no Reagan Revolution. American voters made that clear on Nov. 2, by substantially strengthening the Democrats' control of the House of Representatives and of state governments, and narrowing Republican control of the Senate. Thus just two years after the Reagan landslide of 1980, the electorate reaffirmed the essential centrism of American politics.
This memory is prompted of course by the hubris of Republicans after Tuesday's election results. Perhaps they will be right where Wicker was wrong. But before declaring the end of the Obama administration and its policies, it is perhaps worth taking a deep breath and thinking about that first Reagan midterm election.
In its aftermath, moderate Republicans panicked. ''You can't govern this country when it's polarized,'' said Senator William Cohen, a Republican moderate from Maine. ''I think the President has got to compromise on most issues until the unemployment rate comes down.'' The election results meant that Reagan was damaged political goods, a New York Times new analysis concluded: "In sum, the President's political impact has diminished. He is not the feared figure of 18 months ago."
The parallel of 2010 with 1982 is flawed, of course. Republican losses in 1982 were not as great as those suffered by Democrats this week (Republicans in 1982 lost 26 House seats or 13.6% of their pre-election total, while Democrats this year seem to have lost at least 60, perhaps 25%). The result, however, was worse for Reagan: a 269-166 Democratic majority. At the moment, the projected Republican majority is 242-193.
Nonetheless, Republican leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, clearly reading from the same script, have argued that the elections mean that President Obama must "change course." The irony is that their hero, Ronald Reagan, did precisely the opposite. His theme was "Stay the course." In his State of the Union address in January 1983, Reagan did not change course at all (despite the fact that his approval rating was at 35%). In fact, he blamed Jimmy Carter for the economic situation that hurt Republicans the previous November:
The problems we inherited were far worse than most inside and out of government had expected; the recession was deeper than most inside and out of government had predicted. Curing those problems has taken more time and a higher toll than any of us wanted. Unemployment is far too high.
Imagine the howls of indignation on the right if Obama were to say the same thing today, and use that as justification for staying the course!
Instead, the president has struck a conciliatory tone, and has spoken of compromise. While this has earned him the wrath of the commentators on MSNBC, I suspect Obama has the Reagan model in mind. In the same address quoted above, Reagan also talked the bipartisan talk:
So, let us, in these next 2 years – men and women of both parties, every political shade – concentrate on the long-range, bipartisan responsibilities of government, not the short-range or short-term temptations of partisan politics.
This, of course, is not what we remember about Reagan, because it did not mean he did not also "stay the course." Yes, Reagan worked out a bipartisan deal on Social Security, but he also defended his signature issues: tax cuts and increased defense spending. And he won re-election in 1984, with a higher percentage of the vote than he got in 1980.
No one knows today if Barack Obama will be able to replicate that record. (Much depends on the economy: if it improves, he will likely be in good shape in two years; if not, he will be vulnerable to any potential Republican nominee.) But my hunch is that he will try.
Most commentary in the last few days has taken for granted that Obama will have to emulate Bill Clinton after the 1994 midterms and move to the center. I'm not so sure.
Remember that during the 2008 campaign, Obama said that he wanted to be a transformative president like Reagan, a comment that was taken as an implicit shot at Clinton. He also said earlier this year that he would rather accomplish great things than be re-elected. If he meant both of those things, he will be like Reagan and stay the course. But whether it will work is anyone's guess.