Michael Barone: Democrats may take Congress, but will it matter in the long run?

Roundup: Media's Take

[Mr. Barone is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report and coauthor of"The Almanac of American Politics" (National Journal Group).]

As Democrats begin, in George W. Bush's words, "measuring the drapes" in the offices of the House speaker and Senate majority leader, it's worth looking back on the history of sixth-year-of-the-presidency off-year elections. Have big gains for the out party been a harbinger of future voting patterns? And have opposition victories in those elections resulted in significant public policy changes? History gives us clear answers to those questions. They are: sometimes yes and sometimes no.

Sometimes yes: In the post-Civil War years, there were two big sixth-year victories for the out party. The first was in 1874, during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, when the opposition Democrats converted a 194-92 deficit in the House to a 169-109 majority. Historians writing in the backwash of the New Deal tended to ascribe this reverse to the Panic of 1873. But my reading of history tells me that this was a revolt against Grant's policy of stationing troops in the South to enforce civil rights for blacks. Americans had been growing weary of this strife (as they may be growing weary of the strife today in Iraq) and wanted the troops sent home. They were, and Democrats held the House for 16 of the next 20 years--and Southern blacks were left to the mercies of segregation laws and lynch mobs.

There was another great reversal 20 years later [in 1894] --the greatest in American electoral history. Amid a depression deeper than any except that of the 1930s, with violent labor strikes and low farm prices, the House flipped to 244-105 Republican from 218-127 Democratic. This was the beginning of the McKinley Republican majority (said to be the model of Karl Rove) which prevailed for most of the time till the '30s. The laissez-faire policies of Democratic President Grover Cleveland were rejected, even by his own party, and the era of Progressive government interventionism--and Republican majorities--followed. This sixth-term off-year election was consequential indeed.

The 20th century presents more of a mixed bag. In 1938 FDR's Democrats had been flying high for six years. In 1936 they won the popular vote for the House by 56%-40%. But in 1938 the popular vote was only 49%-47% Democratic and Republicans gained 75 seats. For most of the next 20 years Congress was dominated by an anti-New Deal coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats, much to the fury of liberal political scientists who argued that every Democrat should somehow be compelled to vote for Roosevelt-type programs. FDR's Third New Deal, as Alan Brinkley chronicled, was stopped in its tracks. The field was set for talented maneuverers like the (in 1938) freshman Congressman Lyndon Johnson to manipulate the system for his conservative and Democratic confreres.
The 1946 elections looked like another landscape-altering reversal. Republicans won the House races by a 53%-44% popular vote majority and got a 245-188 majority. "Had enough?" was their slogan, and they promptly set about repealing wartime wage and price controls, reducing wartime tax rates and passing the Taft-Hartley Act, which reduced the power of labor unions (1946 saw the largest number of strikes in American history). They also supported Harry Truman's Cold War aid to Turkey and Greece and the Marshall Plan. This 80th Congress, which Harry Truman labeled "do nothing," and in which Richard Nixon and John Kennedy served as freshmen, made major changes in public policy. But the Republicans' work having been done, the voters pitched them out in 1948. Republicans never again had such a large House majority.

The next big change came in President Eisenhower's sixth year, 1958. It was a recession year, at a time when most voters still feared that the Depression of the 1930s might be returning. Democrats gained 15 seats in the Senate and 50 in the House. This was the first Congress in which a majority believed in FDR's New Deal, 13 years after his death. Their numbers were winnowed a bit in 1960 and 1962 but were augmented in 1964, enough to produce the votes for LBJ's Great Society measures and, with support from most Republicans, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965....

All of which leaves me with the conclusion that ideas are more important than partisan vote counts. Democrats could not go beyond the New Deal from 1938 to 1958, because they had not persuaded most Americans to go Roosevelt's way until 13 years after his death. ...

Read entire article at WSJ

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

DeWayne Edward Benson - 11/12/2006

Already the DEM Speaker has stated that "The Bush-Admin Crimes will not be brought before justice... no Impeachment."

I can guarantee, UNLESS the Bush-Admin ARE "Impeached," America WILL see 'More-of-the-Same'.

DeWayne Edward Benson - 11/12/2006

It would be correct to say nothing has been gained for American citizens in this 2006 election, and DEM gained effectively nothing as far as control.

In fact the very opposite is obvious, Bush gives Rumsfeld the bums rush while GOP (rubber stamp) can OK another Emnpire man in charge of the Pentagon, this way DEM LEAFERS of Congress need not worry about having to pass on this FRONT MAN who will then serve the US-Empire.

Get it straight in your mind, there is absolutely no difference between DEM and GOP representatives (in upper levels of CONTROL) in Congress regarding Empire agenda's.

Unless the DEM get rid of the BUSH/PNAC apologist in the House, Americans can expect the Bush-Admin lies and corruption to continue. You see this 'apologist' has already said "NO ACTION WILL BE TAKEN AGAINST THE CRIMES of THE BUSH-ADMIM."

If (any) of you Americans ever hope to see JUSTICE in America again, the people and crimes of the Bush-ADMIN must be taken before Fed-Court. This will ONLY Begin AFTER the Bush-ADMIN are slapped with STRONG IMPEACHMENT Charges (and TRIAL).