The president was inexperienced, they said. Weak. Oh, he’d accomplished some great things in his year-and-a-half in office, but clearly he was doomed in a couple years. Meanwhile, Congress, which had been a rubber stamp for this Democrat, was seen by the Republicans as out of touch with the American people, who were ready for a change.
The Republicans rode that wave to a massive victory, gaining dozens of seats, their largest gain in over half a century. They would hold more than 240 seats when it was all said and done, their largest majority in three generations. Clearly, the future was bright for the Republicans, and the Democrats – they were doomed.
Knowing that they had the wind at their back, Republicans came to power refusing to compromise with the administration. If they could hold on two years, they’d take the presidency – and then they could rule unfettered.
2010? No, 1946, when Republicans ended 16 years of Democratic rule emphatically, winning 55 seats and gaining a majority of 246 seats to the Democrats’ 188.
What happened next? Well, in 1948, Harry S. Truman campaigned against the “do-nothing Republican Congress.” Despite being an underdog to Thomas Dewey, Truman won the election. Everyone remembers that, of course.
What they’ve forgotten is that in 1948, the Democrats took back the House of Representatives. And how. Two years after suffering humiliating defeat, Democrats gained 75 seats, propelling them to a majority of 263. Sam Rayburn, who had been defenestrated just two years before, became speaker once again.
The Democrats would hold the house for 44 of the next 46 years.
This does not mean, of course, that Democrats are sure to win back Congress in two years. History doesn’t repeat itself. But as Arthur Schlesinger once noted, sometimes it rhymes. And while the Republicans could hold the House of Representatives for many years, their hold on it could be tenuous indeed.
The lesson from 1946 for the Democrats is simple and obvious: a defeat today, even a bad one, doesn’t mean a defeat forever. Sometimes, a bad defeat can be followed in short order by an even larger victory. How hard we work over the next two years will determine whether John Boehner is a one-term speaker or not.
But there’s a lesson for the Republicans as well, if they choose to heed it. After all, in 1994, the Republicans rode a wave of discontent to power as well, but they held the House for over a decade afterward. Why? Because for all the rancor and impeachment drama, on policy, Newt Gingrich was willing to work with Bill Clinton, at least once he got smacked by the government shutdown.
If the Republicans choose to be serious about governing, choose to actually engage in the difficult process of compromise and leadership that a complex nation requires, then they may be able to build a durable majority. But if they choose to come in with guns blazing, drawing lines in the sand and proclaiming that they mean to end the Obama administration, they well could meet the same fate as the Republicans in 1946 – swept from power just two years after being swept into it.