By Salena Zito
CARLISLE, Pennsylvania -- It was called the political storm of the century. It would end with the largest single turnover of power in American history -- and one for the ages.
It was fall of 1894. People were still feeling the effects of the Panic of 1893, which had shut down most of the economy and plunged the nation into a catastrophic recession, with every segment of the country in a world of pain. Farmers were disgusted with the cost of wheat; laborers were desperate for jobs and higher pay.
The biggest punch of all, the Pullman Strike, had caused a massive, nationwide boycott of all trains that carried Pullman passenger cars. It pitted labor against the company, the press, the federal government and President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat in the beginning half of his second nonconsecutive term in office.
When Cleveland called in the U.S. Army to quell the strikers, the die was cast for his party. Just four years earlier, Democrats had gained 86 House seats and a majority. On election night 1894, Republicans gained 130 seats -- a whopping 35% of the lower chamber, which totaled 357 seats at that time. Democrats lost 125 seats outright, with Republicans picking up third-party seats as well. It remains the largest numerical loss for a political party in history, according to the House historian.
Newspaper accounts at the time wrote of dancing and celebration in the streets, with headlines that read, "Crowds gone Wild," and the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette writing, "Thousands of them assembled on Pittsburgh's streets last night to cheer the returns. They also indulged all the infernal devices for making noise the diabolical mind of man has been able to invent."
Here in Cumberland County, the headlines read that Republicans took a 200,000-vote plurality in the state. This foreshadowed the demise of Tammany Hall in New York City, as Democrats there, too, were swept out of office.
The Democrats had woefully handled every crisis that came their way that year. And their use of the press as a weapon against the people had backfired. America was in the middle of the Gilded Age -- when agricultural markets crashed, the railroads were the next domino to fall, then the steel industry, and then manufacturing.
Cleveland hesitated to act. When he finally tried to repeal the Silver Purchase Act in an attempt to strengthen gold, it was too late. His move caused a bank run and a stock market crash, unemployment neared 20%, and voters wanted the lot of his party thrown out.
Making Democrats' problems even worse was a new populist movement -- a left-wing faction of the party that was siphoning off the support of farmers and laborers especially. They were furious over Democrats being in bed with big business.
The populists not only cost the Democrats even more seats, but their politics had a lingering effect on the Democratic Party. It would be 16 years before Democrats won a House majority again.
The blowout also affected their presidential prospects. Despite the massive midterm election loss, Cleveland would attempt to seek office for the third time. He failed, losing renomination to populist firebrand Rep. William Jennings Bryan, D-Neb. He would run for president and lose three times as a Democrat.
In the past 128 years, we have never seen a majority swept out with such vigor and magnitude as it was in 1894. In truth, it is unlikely to happen again. However, that doesn't mean the Democrats are not trying hard to break that record, or at least the more recent one set in 2010 by the Republicans.
Meanwhile, no one is shaking off inflation as a passing phase -- it is real, and it is hurting all of us. Hardest hit are the working poor and the middle class. No one in Biden's administration or the Democrats' House and Senate majorities seems to have a message that they are in control of this -- that there is some sense of a clear economic plan, at least to get things moving along the right path.
The only message President Joe Biden has given people on inflation is that it is Russian President Vladimir Putin's fault -- an insulting premise to everyone who has been watching prices rise rapidly for the last 12 months.
Grover Cleveland, like Joe Biden, remained both stubborn and stuck -- both ahead of those midterm elections and in his final two years in office. He tried to weaponize the press against the farmers and the working class. He continued to hold the same positions, including a commitment to free trade, that turned voters away from him.
On the day after the Nov. 6 midterm elections in 1894, the chairman of what was then called the Congressional Democratic Committee, Sen. Charles Faulkner of West Virginia, wept as he told the Chicago-based daily Inter Ocean, "I did the best I could."
Cleveland, for his part, said nothing for days. He left the White House early on the day of the election to escape to his country home on Woodley Lane. His first emergence came in the form of a proclamation making Nov. 29 a day of "thanksgiving and prayer." He never forgave his party for abandoning him two years later.
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.