I am delighted to report that I have completed a draft of my new book, States of the Union: A Concise History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023. I hope to have more news about it relatively soon. Writing up the conclusion, I ran over the political history of the last 20 years or so, and I discovered a couple of remarkable patterns. Journalistic memories have become so short, it seems to me, that I haven't seen anyone else mention them. So here they are.
The first is quite straightforward. From 1961 through 1968, Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. From 1969 through 1976, Republicans took over the White House, but Democrats still controlled Congress. The Democrats had full control again from 1977 through 1980, when the Republicans won back the White House and the Senate. They lost the Senate in 1986, but did not lose the White House until the 1992 election.
In 1994 the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1952. Except for part of one session in the Senate, they controlled both the Senate and the House until 2006, and they regained the White House in 2000. Then a new era began.
The Democrats won back both Houses of Congress in 2006. They won back the White House in 2008. In 2010, however, the Republicans regained control of the House. Nothing changed in 2012. In 2014 the Republicans won back the Senate. In 2016 they won back the White House. In 2018 they lost back the House, while retaining the Senate. In 2020 the Democrats regained both the White House and the Senate while retaining the House. But in 2022, the Republicans won back the House yet again.
In eight of the last nine elections, at least one house of Congress or the White House changed hands. Having worked my way through the whole of US history over the last three years, I can assure you that this story has no previous precedent. What has happened?
In my opinion, these continual changes of fortune reflect the frustration of a critical, swing portion of the electorate, whose hopes for a new regime are invariably disappointed. George W. Bush had essentially held the country behind him and his party for six years (2001-6), but after that, the nation had had enough, and the Democrats won twice in a row. Barack Obama's failure to help the American people in his first two years in office, however, turned the nation's anger against himself and the Democrats, and he lost his House majority and never regained it. (Obama's main legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, didn't even take effect until 2014.) He managed to win re-election but the Republican House prevented him from accomplishing anything after 2013, and the Democrats lost the Senate in 2016. Republican pluralities in critical states, reflecting dissatisfaction with the elites in both parties, elected Donald Trump in 2016, but his chaotic administration lost the House two years later in 2018 and led to Biden's comfortable victory in 2020. Now the Democrats have tried to regard the 2022 elections as a victory, but the fact remains that they lost the national popular vote and their majority in the House. The Democrats are now counting on their belief that Biden can beat Trump again in less than two years, but the momentum has swung against them.
That leads me to the second new pattern. The president's party does usually lose seats in every midterm, but from 1900 onward only three sitting presidents--Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower--have lost control of the House of Representatives after only two years in office. That fate, however, has now befallen three successive Democratic presidents--Clinton in 1994, Obama in 2010, and Biden in 2022. In the first two cases--and also in 2018, when the Democrats won the House back--this has led immediately to a budget crisis and threats, sometimes carried out, of a government shutdown. And we are in the middle of a replay now. It seems that both the politicians and the country have given up on the necessary minimum of consensus between the two parties, and the endless, investigation-fueled partisan war will continue.