Now that Democrats have retaken Congress for the first time in twelve years, we have only two precedents in modern times to give us an idea of what might lie ahead in the next two years and for the presidential election of 2008.
Cold-war power swings
In 1946, the Republican party won majorities in the House and Senate after sixteen years in the wilderness.
President Harry Truman, who had inherited his job after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, was widely viewed as incompetent. His approval rating was 32 percent. Voters were suffering from inflation and other post-World War II dislocations. Only a year after our victory over the Nazis and Japanese, Americans were wondering why we were suddenly in danger of fighting our wartime allies, the Soviets.
Back in power on Capitol Hill, conservative Republicans passed bills that had been on their dream list for years, like the Taft-Hartley Act to restrict the power of labor unions. Over the next two years, some Americans began to worry that continued Republican dominance might endanger New Deal programs they liked, such as Social Security.
Truman campaigned for reelection in 1948 against members of the “good-for-nothing” Republican Congress. He portrayed the new majority as being more right-wing than they had given voters to believe – and as failing to solve the problems they had complained about while in opposition. Against most predictions, Truman won a second term and took Congress back for the Democrats.
From ‘Contract’ to ‘Triangulation’
Under Newt Gingrich and his “Contract with America,” Republicans seized Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.
Many voters felt that President Bill Clinton had not kept his promise to govern as a moderate “new Democrat.” They pointed to tax increases, Clinton’s failure to enact welfare reform and the Big Government health care program proposed by his wife Hillary.
Just as this year’s Democratic candidates aired commercials linking their foes to the unpopular President George W. Bush, Republican spots of 1994 showed sundry Democrats across the country morphing into images of Clinton, who at the time was so unpopular that he spent part of that fall, not campaigning for his party, but visiting the Middle East.
As in 1947, the 1995 Congressional Republicans overreached, allowing the president to position himself as a moderate, reasonable oasis between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress. Clinton rehired his old political consultant Dick Morris (who was by then advising the conservative Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi) and co-opted key aspects of the Republican program in his 1995 State of the Union address. A year later, he told the Congress that the “era of Big Government is over.”
During Clinton’s 1996 campaign for reelection, his commercials showed his opponent, Senator Bob Dole, side by side with Speaker Gingrich so often that some voters mistook Gingrich for Dole’s running mate.
Clinton did not manage to restore Congress to Democratic control, but his “triangulations” saved his own political skin.
2006: Watershed or blip?
With this history in mind, what do Tuesday’s results suggest for the upcoming Presidential campaign of 2008? It all depends on how Democrats behave once back in power.
Many voters who restored them to leadership on Capitol Hill yesterday did so not because they have suddenly become Nancy Pelosi Democrats, but because they think the existing Republican Congress had grown too self-satisfied and insular and had not done enough to use what Woodrow Wilson called the “whip” of investigation against President Bush.
If Democrats misinterpret history — as Republicans did in 1946 and 1994 — and assume a mandate to enact the most controversial parts of their wish list, they too may find themselves punished in the next General Election by the same Republicans and independents who yesterday swallowed their doubts and voted for the Democrats.
However, if the newly victorious Democrats learn from history and show themselves to be a disciplined party, ready to be unite and govern rather than divide, they may well make the case for a Democratic president in 2008.