Echoes of ‘78

Dan O’Donnell reflects on the deep parallels between Republican midterm disappointments in 2022 and 1978, and how to achieve a massive Reagan-like victory in the next presidential election.

Nov. 18, 2022
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell

“Republicans blew it,” the firebrand conservative columnist writes, venting the frustrations of millions following a deeply disappointing midterm.

“With the stock market quietly crashing, with the dollar demanding emergency resuscitation to avert panic, with double‐digit inflation likely to worsen,” he wrote, Congressional Democrats were somehow able to “escape the normal midterm punishment.

“Shellshocked Republican leaders are trying to convince each other that the pickup of a half‐dozen governorships and a dozen seats in the House of Representatives was all that could reasonably be expected, given the way incumbents have ‘reformed’ the election process to entrench themselves.”

Is this a stern admonition from George Will?  A sober reflection on 2022 from Byron York? Hardly: It was The New York Times’ William Safire lamenting a missed Republican opportunity on November 9th, 1978.

The parallels to the 2022 midterms are striking.  Democratic President Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976 largely on the strength of national disdain for Richard Nixon, was quickly revealed to be in deeply over his head, and his approval ratings reflected it.  From April of 1978 through mid-September, when he struck a major (but illusory) foreign policy victory with the Camp David Accords, Carter’s approval ratings languished in the low 40s.

Even with sizable Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, he was unable to steer the nation out of what he would come to characterize as an economic “malaise” brought on by massive government spending and astronomical tax rates that paralyzed the American consumer.  The world was firmly in the grips of an energy crisis that sent the price of gas skyrocketing, and as the Federal Reserve struggled to keep up, interest rates made home ownership far more difficult than it had been for prior generations.

In most American cities—wholly controlled by Democrats for generations—violent crime was out of control, rising 64 percent over the course of the decade with nary a response from the burgeoning liberal movement.  Drug abuse and homelessness ran rampant, and Democrats seemed unable or, worse, unwilling to combat them.

Hanging over all of this, though, was the shadow of Nixon.  Just four years removed from his resignation amid fallout from the Watergate scandal and a pardon from President Gerald Ford that allowed him to escape punishment in the eyes of many, voters still weren’t ready to give Republicans another chance.  They were too closely tied with Nixon’s corruption.

It is frankly undeniable that former President Donald Trump’s shadow loomed large over the 2022 midterms.  The FBI raided his home in Mar-a-Lago just 90 days before Election Day, while the January 6th Committee waited a full 18 months after the Capitol riot to begin holding hearings in an obvious effort to keep Trump front and center in the minds of voters.

Democrats in 2022 made much the same arguments as their counterparts 44 years ago: Sure, we may have mangled the economy and made the crime, homeless, and drug problems far worse, but those guys are the Party of Trump! You don’t really want to go back to that, do you?

It turns out that many Americans didn’t.  Republicans had high hopes of picking up as many as three or four seats in the Senate and retaking the majority and winning the House in a landslide that could see them pick up as many as 40 new members.  As of this writing, the GOP won a net gain of just 11 seats in the House and may end up losing a seat in the Senate pending the results of next month’s runoff in Georgia.

In 1978, Republican hopes were similarly high, but they won just 15 House and three Senate seats and failed to flip either chamber.  It was a massive disappointment that Safire summed up rather succinctly: “Republicans blew it.”

Thankfully, they did not do so again two years later.  Rather than make the same mistake they had in 1976 by nominating a presidential candidate (Ford) with deep ties to the hated Nixon, the GOP signaled that it was moving past the Nixon era for good when it nominated the extremely effective, charismatic, and conservative governor of a large state to be its standard-bearer.

Democrats, meanwhile, struggled with whether to even renominate the woefully inept Carter.  Senator Ted Kennedy launched an ill-fated primary challenge that nonetheless weakened the incumbent president with his base.

The general election was a slaughter, as Carter lost to California Governor Ronald Reagan 489 electoral votes to 89.  Largely on the strength of Reagan’s popularity, Republicans retook the Senate and won 34 seats in the House.

Will the 2024 presidential election mirror 1980 as much as the 2022 midterms were a direct parallel of 1978’s?  That will ultimately depend on what the GOP, and its voters, do next.