The railway melodrama erupted while Truman was plagued by mounting inflation. In January 1946, he had told Congress that he wanted new price control legislation on his desk by April 1. Not until the end of June, as OPA's authority was about to expire, did a bill arrive. It was so dreadfully inadequate that Bowles, who now headed up the Office of Economic Stabilization, submitted his resignation. "Clearly," he said, "I cannot remain here to administer the inflationary bill which Congress...presented for your signature." What was Truman to do? If he signed the measure, he would be expected to constrain inflation without the mechanisms to do so. If he did not sign, all controls would end at midnight June 30; prices would run riot. Truman vetoed the bill.
Just as he had predicted, lifting government controls caused economic havoc, but Congress was only slightly chastened. In the next two weeks, prices rose more than in the previous three years. Within days, wholesale prices for food soared to heights not seen since 1920; grocery items from butter to coffee surged to record peaks. Congress soon enacted a new bill—little, if any, better than the one he had vetoed—but on July 25, "with reluctance," Truman signed it into law.
The blame for this sorry state of affairs might well have fallen on obstructionists in Congress; instead, most of it descended on the president, the result of his exposed position and his inconsistency. Of this interlude, even Truman's sympathetic biographer, Alonzo Hamby, has written: "Truman's performance was terrible. He appeared to have danced around every side of the issue. He was weak, then strong, then weak again." On July 26, Time magazine's Congressional correspondent, Frank McNaughton, wrote in an internal memo, "Harry Truman could not carry Missouri now."
When a cap was reimposed on meat prices, stockmen refused to send their cattle to packinghouses; tens of thousands of butchers across America had to close down. From Albuquerque to Miami, customers in search of meat rioted.
For weeks, the pursuit of red-blooded protein and lamentation about "famine" became national obsessions. "The weird cry for ‘meat,'" wrote Collier's Weekly columnist Tom Stokes afterward, "seemed, as one heard it, to symbolize the desire for all things material." The demand for hamburger, however, reflected more than the greed of spoiled Americans. (In postwar Europe at that very moment, the specter of hunger was all too real.) It also reflected anxiety that the government could not cope. "Come what may," wrote John O'Donnell, political columnist of the New York Daily News, "this battle for the control of Congress will go down in our political history as the meat campaign."
On October 14, scarcely more than three weeks before midterm elections, Truman bit the bullet. Even when his approval rating dropped to 32 percent, he had told reporters that controls were indispensable. On this night, however, speaking to the largest radio audience since the end of the war, Truman lashed out at "the few men in Congress who, in the service of selfish interests, have been determined for some time to wreck price controls no matter what the cost might be to our people." Then he stunned the nation by announcing that he was lifting controls on meat. With the lid off, prices skyrocketed. The New York Daily News headlined: PRICES SOAR, BUYERS SORE/STEERS JUMP OVER THE MOON. Brickbats flew at the president. "Brother," said Ohio's Clarence J. Brown, chair of the Republican Congressional Committee, "the tide is sweepin' our way."
Republicans resolved to make the off-year election a referendum on the Democratic administration, with Truman the butt of gibes. "Why had the president been late to today's press conference?" the joke went. "He got up this morning a little stiff in the joints and had trouble putting his foot in his mouth." Republicans amused themselves with the one-liner, "To err is Truman." Truman had become such a millstone that his party's national chairman, with as much grace as he could muster, told the president of the United States to make himself scarce during the campaign. Truman complied.
The GOP made the president's clumsy handling of price controls the theme of its campaign. During the hamburger "famine," Republican Congressional candidates in sound trucks cruised streets where grocery lines stretched, booming the message, "Ladies, if you want meat, vote Republican." The president, they asserted, merited a new moniker, "Horsemeat Harry."
Democrats approached Election Day saturated in a gloom—and poll approval numbers—they had not seen since 1928, when they had been buried in the Hoover landslide. When Truman took office, the country, by nearly 2–1, said that Democrats were better at managing domestic problems; by the autumn of 1946, the advantage had gone to the Republicans.
On November 5, more than 35 million Americans went to the polls. In House races, Republicans exceeded their rosiest predictions, picking up 54 seats, their greatest midterm victory since 1894. The GOP wound up with a 59-member dominance over the Democrats. When the new Congress convened in January, Republicans would occupy 75 percent of the seats outside the South. The GOP increased its margin in Pennsylvania from 19 seats to 28, wiped out the Democratic delegation in Wisconsin, and swept Connecticut's 6 seats, 4 of which had been held by Democrats.