As I write these lines, another midterm election has gone into the books, without profound impact on the nature of things. Great and transforming events continue to shake the world, but the voting returns, so far as the make-up of the 102nd Congress is concerned, tell a familiar story. Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have been retained and even slightly enlarged. And until the lawmakers reassemble, we will be spared the familiar campaign nonsense from both sides: Republican charges that all Democrats suffer from a congenital itch to tax and spend; Democratic rejoinders that the Republicans without exception ignore “the people” and speak only for the idle rich.
Of course, such broad-brush indictments ignore the complex reality of congressional votes in which coalitions are built on the basis of combinations of local and special interests. Most of us know that. I have since I was a boy in the Great Depression and used to hear elders tell me that Republicans “always” got us into depressions. When I found out that the biggest depression prior to 1929 began in 1893 under the Democratic President Grover Cleveland, it was my first useful lesson in historical skepticism.
But I did wonder one morning if there was in fact a distinctive party stamp that could be put on different eras of the past, depending on which party was in control of the government. That in itself—who controls?—is a tricky question, as I soon learned. No deep-dish research was involved. I merely reached for a volume of historical statistics and a couple of almanacs and began to count. As any baseball fan can tell you, part of the fun of the postseason season is playing with statistics. They can be fascinating—and likewise deceptive without analysis. Nonetheless, I plowed through the national political numbers for the past century, 1890-1990, and came up with the following politically unscientific data:
If we look separately at the Presidency and Congress, we find that it’s been, on balance, a slightly “Republican” century. The period has seen 25 presidential elections, and the Republicans have taken 14 of them. When repeaters are counted, only 18 men have actually held the office, and 11 of them were Republicans, though one of those—Gerald Ford—did not win at the polls: he was named Vice President by Congress after Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, and he succeeded to the office when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. Democratic presidential victories have gotten scarcer of late—only four in the last forty-two years, and two of those (Kennedy in 1960, Carter in 1976) were by razor-thin popular majorities.
Republicans have held the White House for fifty-six of the last hundred years, the Democrats for forty-four. Yet to fix responsibility on a party, it would seem reasonable to expect it to have full control of the federal machinery.
And how often, readers, do you think that has happened? Most of the time? Very little of the time? Try a little under two times in three, and you’ve hit it correctly. There have been 50 congressional elections, and of them, exactly 32 have yielded majorities in both House and Senate for the same party as the President’s. Any pocket calculator will tell you that we are talking about 64 percent of the time. What is more, of those 32 occasions on which the President, the speaker of the House, and the majority leader of the Senate all were fellow Republicans or Democrats, half came clustered in two long stretches. Only in these periods—a Republican era from 1897 to 1911 and Democratic dominance from 1933 to 1953 (with one break)—periods long enough for policies to evolve and take root, can one really pin full leadership responsibility on either party.
For the record, the period began in 1890 with a Republican President (Benjamin Harrison) and Senate, but a Democratic House. The Democrat Grover Cleveland was elected in 1892 with a Democratic House and Senate but immediately lost both branches of Congress in 1894. That was in line with the general pattern of the period from 1872 to 1890, which had seen only one Democratic President (Cleveland himself, 1885-1889) but a Democratic House in six congressional elections out of nine, a Republican Senate seven times out of nine, and one flat-footed tie in the Senate.
But then came 1896, one of the true turning-point elections of our history. William McKinley won; the Republicans also elected 206 representatives (out of 357 at the time) and 47 of 90 senators. Thereafter, for three presidential and six congressional elections, the Grand Old Party swept the board. Only with the Sixty-second Congress, elected in 1910, did the pattern break: The Democrats won a small majority, consisting of 219 votes in the House. In 1912 they also won the Presidency and the Senate. Woodrow Wilson enjoyed Democratic Congresses from 1913 through 1917, but in 1918, at the very moment of World War I victory, the fickle electorate returned a Republican Congress.
Republicans controlled the White House and Congress from 1920 through 1932—though with only 48 senators, a bare majority of one, following the 1926 and 1930 elections. They lost the House in 1932 and had just exactly half of the Senate after that year’s election.
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.
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.