In today’s Wall Street Journal, Michael Barone brings a historical perspective to reading the meaning of sixth-year-of-the-presidency off-year elections. His column is “The six-year itch.” He asks:
Have big gains for the out party been a harbinger of future voting patterns? And have opposition victories in those elections resulted in significant public policy changes?
History gives us clear answers to those questions. They are: sometimes yes and sometimes no.
I have one prediction that I think will prove at least as reliable as Michael Barone’s: It’s going to hurt like hell. To give just one ferinstance, in today’s Washington Times, Audrey Hudson reports: “Democrats wait in the wings with subpoenas.”
It may be an opportune time to expand our historical perspective on the six-year itch. In a recent issue of the Weekly Standard, Noemie Emery also sought to take the long view of sixth-year-of-the-presidency elections. She found a pattern that she called “The sixth year slump.” Emery’s interest is in noting the disparity between the short-term verdict represented by the results of the mid-term election and the ultimate verdict of history. Emery suggests that “sixth-year pain is nothing but normal, and has been shared in some way by all two-term presidents; that the judgments made of presidents in their sixth years of office (and in their seventh and eighth years, for that matter) have not always stood up over time.” Emery powerfully invokes the memory of Truman and the devastating impact of the Korean War on the final two years of his presidency. Vindication, however, was a long time in coming:
A few decades later, Korea came to be seen as a critical turn in the Cold War, ending invasion as a weapon of Soviet strategy. And the failed haberdasher from Independence, Mo., was on his way to being bracketed with the faded film star from Eureka and Hollywood as the two presidents who did the most to win the Cold War.
What accounts for the disparity between the judgment of the moment and the long view of history? Emery writes:
There are myriad reasons second-term leaders tend to have oversized woes. There is the hubris that comes with reelection, the brain drain and fatigue that develop through long years in power, the scandals that come up as the in-party gives way to greed and temptation, the familiarity that breeds irritation, which now and then turns to contempt. The president’s personal traits might have lost their appeal, and now seem annoying. His accent grates on those who don’t share it. His rhetorical tricks have been used just a little too often. His ideas, which seemed promising, have not brought nirvana, and their downside is visible. The laws of unintended consequences have begun to kick in.
With all this, there also are reasons those who judge presidencies too early may falter: They don’t know the whole story; they don’t know the backstory; and they don’t have the perspective that only time brings. If a week is a lifetime in politics, then six months or two years are an age. In mid-1988, no one could know that Reagan’s last term would end on an upswing, one that would open the way for all that came after. In 1939, no one could know that Roosevelt, who seemed a spent force on his domestic agenda, would be ranked when he died, with Lincoln and Washington, as one of the great presidents of all time.
Emery’s historical perspective is one that it will be helpful to bear in mind over the coming days.