American politics, for the presidential party to lose congressional support in a midterm election. As any administration struggles in the early part of a term to define itself, it's likely to fall in and out of favor with a public still not inundated of the White House's identity and intentions. This is an opportunity rarely missed by the opposition, as sophomore year presidencies have commonly been forced to tolerate an exploitation of their greatest possible weakness. At the dual behest of the media and some genuine desire for social progress, the public has been prone to voicing protest in a midterm election. One prime example in recent history was Bill Clinton's first midterm election. He had taken a beating on the gays in the military issue in his first year. And as he grappled with a post-Reaganomics recession in those early years, people who were frustrated with unemployment and an alleged liberal conspiracy in office, gave over to a rising conservative wave that crested with radio broadcasts by Rush Limbaugh, Charlton Heston's increasing influence as a leader in the National Rifle Association and the 1994 Midterm elections, where a prodigious reversal in fortunes, washed Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his compassionate conservative cronies into both houses. It was the first Republican majority since the Eisenhower administration and the heyday of McCarthyism. It was a roadblock that Clinton would never fully overcome in his two terms. And that seemed to be the intent of it, both for the Republican Party and for the American public. It illustrated not just a protest to Clinton's administration, but as historical consistency will attest, an American desire for balance of power. The unconscious and collective ethos that keeps voter trends basically consistent to this trend is perhaps a desire to see that each party sets off the other's extremes and provide civil refuge for all but the most outlying members of society. So when blips appear on the radar of electoral history, it is not an anomaly that goes unnoticed. In 1998 and 2002, American midterm elections were historical for their unique effect of consolidating presidential authority. And ironically, in spite of their close calendar proximity to one another, these consolidations were antithetical, the former going to a Democratic mandate and the latter empowering the Republican majority.
1998 Midterm Elections:
In 1998, Bill Clinton was, on one hand, enormously popular. He had proven himself a charismatic leader, time and again dodging questions of his morality, marital fidelity and his devotion to ideologies consistent with the Democratic party mission with engaging humanity, be it real or fabricated. It was also a great boost that the economy was booming under his watch. The dot.com bubble was still in effect and American consumers were achieving new records of credit line purchasing everyday. Unemployment was at record lows, people were buying more cars and houses and there was gradual laxness that replaced a former desire for conservatism.
Clinton's approval rating on issues like the Israeli Peace Process also helped. But it would be illusory to suggest that everything was perfect. International relations suffered after Clinton's pursuit of military conflict in Somalia and Sarajevo had a hand in some significant carnage.
But what most afflicted his administration was the political opposition. His arrival in Washington in 1992, as a maverick outsider, a Governor from Arkansas, marked the ouster of a twelve year republican stranglehold in the White House. He disrupted a powerful dynasty and the American Right made him pay for it. His every agenda item, from Healthcare/HMO reform to Social Security reform, from environmental protection to education standards, was side-railed by a two House republican majority. Newt Gingrich's Contract With America platform, an electoral pledge to protect conservative America from the playboy liberal represented in Bill Clinton, the first president of the baby boomer generation, manifested itself in a multi-front offensive on Clinton's White House.
And after years of vainly grappling to destabilize Clinton's hypnotic appeal to the American public, the Republicans finally saw the light of day in 1997 and never looked back to darkness. After years of accusations, hushed settlements and hurried denials, with names like Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones gleefully flung about the major networks and tabloid covers alike, the Monica Lewinsky story broke. There were no two ways about it. President Clinton had received oral sex under his desk in the Oval Office. And worse, he had perjured in previous testimony on the matter. It was an obstruction of justice that the Republican Party saw as its greatest opportunity at illustrating the factual amorality of the young left, not that Clinton was the ideal liberal given his foreign policy and corporate coziness.
With a midterm election on the horizon, the Republican's launched an invasively broadcast probe into the president's misdeeds. On the charge of obstructing justice, the Republicans sought to impeach the president. Special Prosecutor Kenneth Star and Henry Hyde helmed an investigation into the matter, and with testimony and even some espionage, the Republicans forced the truth to the surface. The accusations had been true. President Clinton appeared on television and admitted he lied. He told the American public that he was deeply remorseful, that he had indeed had sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and that he would do whatever he had to regain America's trust. He had been caught in a lie. But almost impossibly, he retained an approval rating up in the high sixties. The public was now aware of Monica Lewinsky and, to Republican bewilderment, most people were just happy to have jobs and money.
However, the Republican's proved thereafter that their single greatest strategic flaw was their inability to hear the public's message. Many parts of the population were troubled over America's image. They accepted what Clinton had done, and even cautiously accepted his apology, but the whole scandal had an effect of making American governance look stupid so most people wanted to move on to more pressing matters.
The Republican party ignored the calling and proceeded to conduct a full-court press for impeachment. And they benefited immensely from the majority that they had scored so many years earlier. Finally, Newt Gingrich was sure that he would ride Bill Clinton and Al Gore out of Washington on a rail and restore the Reagan/Bush franchise to its former glory. So they focused every fiber of the party, and of the two house Congressional majority, on campaigning for public support of the ouster. It was the only conservative message of the day and the lightning rod for defining their party identity as an ethical resistance to the Clinton White House. As such, all other governance halted. Bills stalled and died in Congressional hands and Clinton, essentially, spent most of his time in office wholly incapable of overcoming their obstinacy. But the vote for impeachment failed to receive the necessary two-thirds majority and Clinton held fast, bracing for the midterm election. The results of this election would certainly have final say in Clinton's fate. An overwhelming Republican victory could give them the needed voting and gerrymandering strength to finally overtake him. Conversely, it was Clinton's last ditch chance to gain enough support to salvage some of his presidency for progress.
And finally, during election 1998, the tension broke. America's frustration with a Republican inability to cope with pertinent issues became palpable. In the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party gained five full seats. And the Senate was dead even. It was a victory nowhere near as sweeping as what the republicans had accomplished in 1994, but it was huge. Newt Gingrich, Clinton's greatest foe, was vanquished. When the republicans fumbled a lead that they had waited half a century for, the congressional party leader was forced to accept the responsibility. He resigned just as long-term Republican leaders like Senator Alphonse Da'Amato reeled from the shock of upset defeats.
The conservative wave appeared to have subsided somewhat in the face of Clinton's appeal and, perhaps most importantly, economic health. Americans were contended with the status quo for the time and they voiced it by resisting a republican smear campaign in favor of real issues, on most of which Clinton had excelled.
Granted, it is not unique for an election to be influenced by its own unique historical circumstances. There is nothing novel, either, about the use of negative campaign tactics and partisan ethical speculation along the hard campaign trail. So the most pressing unanswered question is of the singularity of this election, given a Democratic party accomplishment not seen since 1934, the last time the White House party took a majority in the House of Representatives.
On a historically local scale, the obvious factor was Clinton's popularity. People identified with the president, agreed with his social policies, remained blissfully unaware of his international policies and felt bad for his wife. And they were compelled to dismiss the monumental human error that resulted in Monicagate.
Certainly, though, Americans may not have been so forgiving had the economy…