Keeping The Political Score

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And then came the all-time champion. Franklin Roosevelt was elected President four times. He never had to work with a House or Senate under anything but Democratic leadership; his party won the seven congressional elections between 1932 and 1944. In the 1936 election the Republicans hit their lowest point, coming out with only 16—yes, 16—senators and 89 representatives. Yet the voters are eternally flexible or fickle, for only six years later, during World War II, the Democrats just eked out the minimum majority of 218 in the House. And in 1946, in the first postwar election, just as had happened in 1918, they slapped the Democratic President, Harry Truman, with a Republican Eightieth Congress.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, that was the sign not of a big change but of a mere aberration. The Democrats have controlled the House practically all the time since then and the Senate most of the time in spite of Republican presidential wins. Eisenhower barely got control of the Congress in his 1952 “landslide”- 221 Republicans in the House, 48 in the Senate—and he promptly lost it in 1956. And though it may come as a surprise, even Ronald Reagan did not have a Republican House to work with in 1981 (though there were times it didn’t seem to make much difference). The Republicans did win small Senate majorities in 1980, 1982, and 1984 (53 and 54 members out of 100). But sometimes it must seem to their discouraged strategists that Congress is frozen forever in the Democratic configuration of the FDR era.

Not that the numbers cheer the Democrats much, for their majorities among voters for Congress do not seem to be transferable to presidential candidates. On the other hand, popular Presidents like Eisenhower and Reagan had enough influence to get what they wanted on Capitol Hill a good deal of the time.

The cautious middle ground gets more and more crowded as colorful dissenters become scarcer in our media-ridden politics.

There are, of course, many reasons for this shift in the last three or four decades, but two obvious factors are the growing power of sitting congressmen to get themselves reelected and the overpowering influence of the Presidency as exerted through the media.

I forbear to delve into these complicated matters, however, but merely content myself with a few safely historical observations. For one thing, even when one party organizes both houses and thereby names committee chairpersons and sets the legislative calendar, actual lawmaking power is not guaranteed. A swing of a few votes when the parties are closely balanced can wreck the best-laid plans. Only in the occasional periods when a strong leader like Sam Rayburn or Lyndon Johnson is in charge can a complete program be enacted. Congressional rules, in fact, are designed to produce debate and compromise more often than crisp decision.

And cross-party alliances between the like-minded of both parties constitute the real working majorities of Congress. During that Republican ascendancy early in the century, “insurgent” Republicans lined up with progressive Democrats against standpatters on both side of the aisle to enact trustbusting, conservation, and regulatory measures. On the other hand, toward the end of the Democratic decades (1933-53) a coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and Republicans blocked most liberal legislation.

If, in fact, there is any recent historical change that strikes me forcibly, it is the disappearance of those deep intraparty splits. Gone are the true racist and reactionary Southerners, like Mississippi’s Sen. Theodore Bilbo, who once stalked Democratic conventions; likewise vanished are Republicans such as Nebraska’s Sen. George Norris, a New Dealer in all but label. We now speak of “moderate” Republicans and “centrist” Democrats. The cautious middle ground gets more and more crowded as colorful dissenters become scarcer in our media-ridden, poll-taking politics.

Does all this mean that it makes no difference which party one votes for? Not necessarily. There are plenty of reasons, which party chairmen will quickly point out, to vote a straight ticket. As a personal matter, I would prefer to see the reestablishment of strong differences between the parties and the imposition of a discipline that would make it possible to pin responsibility on one or the other. Nor am I so thoroughly steeped in cynicism as a college classmate who was once asked by a visiting professor from England how Americans could tell Republicans and Democrats apart. “Republicans are fatter” was his prompt and satisfactory answer. There are, I guess, more significant distinctions but, if we take the record as a guide, not nearly as many as the parties themselves claim.