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The Best Laid Plans...

On political events and realignments.

10:35 AM, Dec 31, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Importantly, the reverse is also true: realignments do not happen when parties respond effectively to the challenge of events.  And indeed, there have been quite a number of would-have-been, could-have-been, should-have-been realignments that turned out to be...well...duds!  These were instances when events intervened, but the threatened party reacted adeptly to the challenge and retained its electoral position.  As we are about to witness the most Republican House of Representatives since the one elected in 1946, it's appropriate, I think, to reflect on why that election was not a realigning one, despite the fact that many pundits at the time did indeed believe it would be.  The experience of the 80th Congress elected that year should serve as a cautionary tale to prevent Republicans from engaging in the kind of triumphalist thinking that has gotten Barack "I Trump You" Obama into such political trouble. 

In 1945-46, the country was having difficulty in the reconversion from a wartime to peacetime economy.  Organized labor had generally refrained from striking during the war, but now that the conflict was over they were striking all across the country to boost wages, undermining the efforts of the Truman administration to prevent a wage-price spiral.  Worse, there was a growing sense that the Soviets had gotten the better of the United States after World War II, and the country was entering the early stages of the "Red Scare."

The Democrats took the blame for all of this, including the rising Soviet threat.  After all, the march of the Russian Communists happened on the party's watch, and, what's more, domestic Communists had more or less been in the Democratic coalition since the 1930s, largely via the Congress of Industrial Organizations (which of course is part of the AFL-CIO today).  Republicans sensed an opportunity and ran hard that year on the Red Menace, and they scored huge.  The 80th Congress, elected in 1946, sported a whopping 246 Republicans, more than any since 1928.  But it wasn't just the number of Republican representatives elected, but where they came from that was so noteworthy.  The pickups weren't really in the traditional swing areas of the Midwest -- those were already Republican heading into 1946.  Instead, many of the pickups came from the big urban centers -- Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, New York City.  The full Philadelphia delegation that year was actually Republican for the first time in a decade.  Much of this GOP success in the cities was attributable to the Catholic vote, which was staunchly anti-Communist. 

Yet what's most memorable about the 1946 election is that it wasn't a harbinger of a post-New Deal realignment.  Two years later, the Republicans were swept out of power as thoroughly as they had been swept in, and apart from a brief and bare majority at the beginning of the Eisenhower administration, they wouldn't recapture a House majority until they were led by a guy named Newt.  What happened?

One major reason for the GOP's failure to retain the majority was the response of the Democratic party to the results of 1946, wherein the party moved quickly to outflank the GOP on the Communist issue.  It's no coincidence that Americans for Democratic Action -- a liberal interest group that was resolutely anti-Communist -- was founded in January 1947 just as the 80th Congress convened.  President Truman fought the Republicans tooth and nail on domestic politics over the next two years, but on foreign affairs he and the Republicans, led by Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, hammered out a bipartisan policy that would remain in place more or less for the next quarter century.  What's more, under the advice of his political counselors, he also went after Henry Wallace, the former cabinet secretary and vice president whom Truman had fired after he publicly promoted a soft stance on the Soviets.  Wallace's third party candidacy in 1948 was just what Truman needed to push most of the Soviet sympathizers out of the Democratic coalition, thus undermining one of the major Republican arguments from 1946.

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