Today in 1946: Republicans retake Capitol Hill in midterm elections

November 5, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryIn American politics, what comes around goes around – and around, and around.

If you rearrange a few details, the Republican tidal wave that crashed down on Capitol Hill earlier this week looks remarkably similar to the midterm elections of 1946, which were held 64 years ago today.

Then as now, the American people were frustrated by tough economic times and the inability of the new Democratic president to make things better, faster. In response, the electorate of 1946 handed House and Senate Republicans their first majorities in 15 years.

Republicans picked up 55 House seats that year (compared to 60-plus seats this year). Many of the incoming freshman representatives in the class of ’46 were returning World War II vets, a group that included two future TV-debate rivals named John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Harry TrumanMost historians view the 1946 midterm landslide as a referendum on Harry Truman, who had been in office for 18 months after Franklin Roosevelt’s death in the waning days of the war.

Factory workers went on strike in record numbers during the first year of Truman’s administration, with some strikes resulting in violence. Against this backdrop of labor unrest, shortages of certain staples continued. In response to the so-called “hamburger famine,” Truman lifted wartime price controls on hamburger shortly before the 1946 election, only to watch the price of still-scarce hamburger soar out of the reach of most Americans.

Truman’s postwar troubles made him ripe for Republican ribbing. In a twist on a popular question of the day – “What would Roosevelt do if he were alive?” – Republicans followed up by asking, “What would Truman do if he were alive?” Another bumper-sticker-sized zinger: “To err is Truman.”

But  Truman and the Democrats didn’t wait long to get the last laugh. The tide of public opinion quickly turned again, and after just two years in power, the Republicans lost their majorities in the House and the Senate in the elections of 1948 – and Truman defeated John Dewey to remain in the White House.

Harry Truman's Oval Office desk sign: "The BUCK STOPS here!"