’82 wasn’t a midterm ‘triumph’

’82 WASN’T A MIDTERM ‘TRIUMPH’…. The Third Way’s Jim Kessler argued over the weekend that President Obama and congressional Democrats, just eight weeks before the midterms, can salvage the cycle. It’d help, Kessler said, if they followed the “model” of “Ronald Reagan’s triumph in 1982.”

As Kessler sees it, Reagan offered a forward-looking vision and “rallied Americans behind his optimism…. Things might look bleak today, he told voters, but blue skies lie ahead.” Kessler noted that one of Reagan’s standard lines at the time was, “Don’t let anyone tell you that America’s best days are behind her.”

This strikes me as odd advice for two reasons. First, Obama is already doing this. Check out the speech the president delivered yesterday, for example, and you’ll notice all kinds of optimism and assurances about blue skies ahead. That’s the whole point of the Democratic message — we’re turning a corner, so let’s not turn back to the policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

Second, Reagan had a midterm “triumph in 1982”? Since when?

Steve Kornacki, as he’s done before, offers a helpful walk down memory lane.

The “triumph” that Kessler describes involved a loss of 26 House seats for the GOP. Yes, 26 is probably fewer than Obama’s Democrats will lose this year — but the GOP only had 191 total seats heading into the ’82 midterms, 64 fewer than Democrats have today. The GOP also lost seven governorships, giving Democrats control of a total of 34, and nearly a dozen state legislative chambers. And while it’s true that they did break even in Senate races, maintaining their majority, this was not the momentous development Kessler describes. Instead, it was a tribute to the GOP’s (now pretty much extinct) liberal wing: Without left-of-center Republicans like Lowell Weicker and John Chafee, thorns in Reagan’s side both, hanging on in their liberal states, the Senate would have been lost for the GOP. […]

I’ve written before about the harsh political realities Reagan faced after his ’82 triumph: an approval rating that declined even further, well below 40 percent; open exhortations from conservatives (many of whom accused him of betraying their cause) not to run for reelection in ’84; open calls from some on the right for a primary challenge if Reagan refused to stand down (Jack Kemp, Jesse Helms and William Armstrong were all mentioned); and even primary flirtations from Bob Packwood, a leader of the GOP ‘s dying left-wing. Polls consistently showed Reagan trailing the 1984 Democratic pack.

I don’t think there’s ever been a presidential p.r. operation as impressive as the conservative campaign to manufacture Reagan greatness. It really is a sight to behold. Nevertheless, to suggest that the ’82 midterms offer a template for Dems to follow seems pretty silly — they were a massive setback for the White House at the time.

If the economy improves, Obama’s and Dems’ fortunes will improve. Though the economic circumstances were different, the same was true of Reagan three decades ago. There’s no reason to pretend “optimism,” from Reagan or anyone else, offers a magical electoral cure.