This article is from the January 2013 issue of Total Politics

Harry Truman had been vice-president for 82 days when, in early April 1945, a massive stroke felled Franklin Roosevelt. “I don’t know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you,” the new president told reporters shortly after taking the oath of office, “but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me”.

Eighteen months later, Truman experienced déjà vu as his Republican opponents gained 55 seats in the House of Representatives and 12 in the Senate, seizing control of Congress for the first time in nearly two decades. 

Shortly after the scale of the Democrats’ losses was clear, Truman wrote to his mother and sister: “From now on I’m going to do as I please and let ‘em all go to hell. At least for two years they can do nothing to me and after that it doesn’t matter.” But his sentiments hardly appeared to presage what would later become one of the greatest political comebacks in American political history. 

Many presidents suffer a bout of the ‘mid-term blues’ but for sheer highs and lows, we must turn to Truman, Nixon and Clinton. Truman’s comeback, with his  ‘whistle-stop’ train campaigning, and the crowds shouting, “Give ‘em hell, Harry”, has acquired a near-mythic status in American political parlance. 

The period between the Republican capture of Congress and Truman’s re-election may well have been one where politics stopped at the water’s edge: many of the foreign policy achievements, like the Marshall Plan, for which the president is now remembered, hail from this period. But the home front was unsecured. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition appeared to be splintering, with many liberals flirting with the Progressive party bid of Truman’s predecessor as vice-president, Henry Wallace, while the president’s support for civil rights threatened a revolt by the southern ‘Dixiecrats’. 

Truman was not sure he even wanted to run again. Six months before election day, his ratings had plunged to 36 per cent, leading Democrats were openly attempting to block his nomination. 

Dogged by a crippling lack of funds, low morale and polls which showed him trailing Thomas Dewey, the Republican nominee, by double-digit margins, few – apart now from the president himself – believed that Truman had any chance of re-election. But Dewey ran a complacent campaign, counting on the president’s apparent unpopularity to deliver him victory. Happy to play the role of underdog, Truman skillfully exploited the tension between Dewey’s moderate platform and the Republicans’ conservative congressional leadership. Throughout the campaign, Truman relentlessly assaulted the reactionary, highly unpopular Congress, all the while attempting to claim the credit for the economic recovery that was by then underway.

None of the polls predicted Truman’s eventual comfortable victory and the Chicago Tribune was confident enough to print its ‘Dewey defeats Truman’ headline. Truman later credited his victory to the effort of the unions, although Jenkins believes, as did Dewey, that it was anger in the farm belt at the Republican Congress which carried Truman over the line, alongside a support for civil rights that bolstered Democrat support among black voters in states such as Ohio and Illinois. 

If Truman’s comeback is the most celebrated, then Nixon must surely win a place for the sheer number. By the time he became the Republican presidential candidate in 1960, just 14 years after winning his first election to Congress, he had already survived a funding scandal in 1952 which threatened his position as Eisenhower’s vice-presidential candidate, and had successfully fought the president’s attempts to drop him as his running mate four years later. 

Nixon eventually lost the 1960 presidential election by one-tenth of one percentage point. Two years later, he attempted a comeback in the California gubernatorial election. He later compared that defeat with his loss of the presidency, as “…like being bitten by a mosquito after being bitten by a rattlesnake”. However, he angrily attacked the press in his concession speech and pledged that it would be “my last press conference”. 

Truman was one of the few who rightly refused to take Nixon at his word. While Nixon opted not to run in 1964, his loyalty to the hopeless cause of the conservative Republican candidate Barry Goldwater paid rich dividends: with leading moderate Republicans refusing to campaign for Goldwater, he had, according to historian Stephen Ambrose, “become the favourite for the 1968 GOP nomination even before the 1964 election was held”. 

Nixon had a clear-cut victory in the electoral college in 1968, but he beat his Democrat opponent, Hubert Humphrey, by only 0.7 per cent in the popular vote. True vindication had to wait until 1972 when Nixon pulled off one of the greatest landslides in American political history: the fourth largest popular vote margin ever. However, the cover-up he had already ordered of the Watergate break-in led to his resignation less than two years later. And Watergate was but the culmination of a culture of paranoia, vindictiveness and dirty tricks which both characterised and destroyed Nixon’s presidency. 

The president left Washington in disgrace, the first and only incumbent to resign his office. But he executed one last, improbable comeback. Over the next 16 years, he steered clear of domestic politics and controversy and campaigned for the office of elder statesman, travelling the world and sharing his foreign policy insights in the 10 books and numerous articles he wrote in retirement. “What had seemed impossible in the summer of 1974 had happened by the summer of 1990. Nixon was respectable, even honoured, certainly admired,” wrote Ambrose. By the time of his death in 1994, Nixon had formed what the New York Times termed a “rarefied bond” with Bill Clinton, who regularly sought his advice and met with him at the White House. 

Clinton’s political career has shared the rollercoaster character of Nixon’s. In 1983, Clinton became Arkansas’ first defeated governor ever to return to the governor’s mansion. Ten years later, after being re-elected governor three more times, Clinton was leading the field in the New Hampshire primary when his campaign was derailed by allegations of an extra-marital affair and draft-dodging during the Vietnam war. 

By polling day, the Clinton campaign was in meltdown with internal polls showing the candidate heading for a third-place finish. However, Clinton’s strong second-place finish in the state – allowing him to proclaim himself the “comeback kid” – cleared the path to his nomination at the Democratic convention and victory over George Bush Sr in November’s presidential election. 

But by November 1994’s mid-term elections, “voters believed Clinton hadn’t accomplished much and didn’t stand for anything”, recalled Dick Morris, the pollster who helped engineer Clinton’s comeback in Arkansas. Despite passage of a budget that slashed the deficit and underpinned the growth and prosperity of Clinton’s time in office, too few voters felt the recovery that the president promised was underway.

The voters’ verdict was harsh: the Democrats lost control of the Senate, and a Republican surge swept away their 40-year hold on the House of Representatives. The president was widely written off as a one-term lame duck, with newspapers reporting that leading Democrats wanted to “dump” Clinton ahead of the 1996 elections. As the year drew to a close, polls showed the new Senate majority leader and Clinton’s likely Republican opponent in the presidential election, Bob Dole, leading him by double digits. With all eyes focused on the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich, the president was forced to plead that he was still “relevant”.

But Clinton’s chief of staff, Leon Panetta, later suggested that Gingrich’s victory had “saved” Clinton’s presidency, because “in many ways it helped to define who Bill Clinton was”. Clinton, like Truman, was lucky in his opponents, but he also made his own luck. ‘Triangulation’, Clinton’s determination to occupy the centre-ground between traditional Democratic liberalism and Gingrich’s ‘Republican revolution’, played a part. But perhaps most crucial was his decision to pick his fights with the Republicans carefully. He had campaigned in 1992 on a promise to reform welfare so, promising to fix those elements he didn’t like later, he signed their legislation. He had come into office promising to “reinvent government”, but he refused to budge on his support for affirmative action. 

The battle over the budget was critical to Clinton’s comeback. Overriding his advisers and the congressional Democrats, he countered the Republicans’ insistence on a balanced budget with his own, but in his plan set a trap for his opponents by insisting that spending on healthcare, education and the environment be protected. The Republicans twice shut the federal government in an attempt to force Clinton to budge. After the first occasion, the president’s approval rating rose to an 18-month high. After the second, his lead over Dole had risen to 20 per cent – a lead that Clinton never lost. 

By the time of his re-election, he had defined more clearly who he was, and in the election he faced an opponent who was, in the words of one Republican, “too old, wooden and partisan”. “Let me tell you about this president”, Clinton’s Treasury secretary Lloyd Bentsen told journalists two years previously, in the wake of the Republican landslide: “He’s a comeback fellow”. 

Clinton’s second term, however, became a fight for survival. By the time of his re-election, he had already begun the relationship with Monica Lewinsky which led to impeachment by the House of Representatives and a trial in the Senate. Unlike Nixon, however, the president was able to use his continuing high popularity to steady his party and repel the political enemies who sought to drive him from office.

Clinton’s impeachment underlines the ‘second term curse’ which has afflicted many a presidency. Following his triumphant re-election, Truman’s presidency became bogged down in the Korean war, preventing him from running for another term in 1952. Vietnam had a similar effect on Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Clinton was impeached in 1998. Nixon resigned to avoid a similar fate in 1974. As the veteran Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon observed: “Landslides are dangerous to the victor”.

Robert Philpot is director of Progress

Tags: History, Issue 54, Presidency, The US (office of), Progress, Robert Philpot