All signs are that the Republican party will retake the House of Representatives on November 2. If that happens, the president will find himself at a fork in the road, the first of his presidency. How he responds to a new Republican majority will set the tone for the rest of his term and could determine whether he will win reelection in 2012.
History offers guidance on this point. Since World War II, two Democratic presidents—Harry Truman and Bill Clinton—have found themselves in similar situations. Their first midterms swung control of Congress decisively to the Grand Old Party. Understanding how each reacted to the new Republican majority, and why he succeeded in winning reelection, may suggest President Obama’s best approach to a new Republican majority.
Vice President Truman became president upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in the spring of 1945. Initially embraced by the American people, the new president quickly lost popular support, as he mismanaged the various crises arising from the transition to peacetime. Inflation, strikes, and the emerging Soviet threat pulled his job approval ratings far into negative territory by the time of the 1946 midterm elections. “Sherman was wrong,” Truman joked to the Gridiron Club, “I’m telling you, I find peace is hell.”
The GOP ran on a simple slogan in the midterm cycle, “Had enough?” The country answered resoundingly in the affirmative. The Republicans picked up 55 seats in the House, winning the majority for the first time since the Great Depression. The labor unions, which did not much care for Truman’s vacillating positions on their issues, sat on their hands in November, and it showed. The Republicans won congressional victories in big cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago, and they swept the field in Philadelphia. When the dust settled, Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas publicly commented that Truman should nominate a Republican as secretary of state, then resign so the public mandate could be fully implemented.
But Truman went on the offensive. In the fall of 1947, one of his closest advisers, Clark Clifford, forwarded to him a memo written by a former FDR political aide, James Rowe. In the memo, Rowe argued for a two-pronged strategy that he believed could hold FDR’s coalition together and secure Truman election in his own right in 1948.
On the international front, Rowe urged Truman to take a hard stand against the Soviet menace, shunning the appeasers in his own party, symbolically led by former vice president Henry Wallace, who Rowe said “should be put under attack whenever the moment is psychologically correct.” On the domestic front, Rowe urged Truman to reject the idea that 1946 represented a lasting shift to the right; instead, he asserted, Truman should embrace a liberal agenda to manage the postwar economy. This, Rowe believed, would reunite the old FDR coalition—the labor and Catholic vote in the big cities, the Solid South, and the progressive West.
Truman was a longtime New Dealer, a loyal Democrat, and a shrewd political operative, so it’s an open question whether Rowe influenced or simply reinforced his thinking. Regardless, he pursued both prongs. His tough anti-Communist stance enabled him to isolate Wallace and forge a bipartisan foreign policy coalition with congressional Republicans, most notably Senator Arthur Vandenburg of Michigan. The GOP had run as tough anti-Communists in 1946, but two years later they would not be able to tag Truman as soft on the Soviet Union. On the domestic side, Truman was all fight. He proposed to the Republican Congress a vigorously liberal economic program even though he knew they would never go for it. He also vetoed the Taft-Hartley labor relations bill as well as tax cuts.
The conventional wisdom was against Truman and Rowe. Most observers, including most Democrats, believed that 1946 was a prelude to a smashing Republican victory in 1948. It must have come as a shock to the morose delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia when Truman, accepting his party’s nomination, opened on a feisty note: “I will win this election and make these Republicans like it—don’t you forget that!” The speech launched what was easily the most combative reelection campaign since Andrew Jackson’s in 1832. For months Truman railed against the “do nothing 80th Congress.” As a purely political stunt, he called Congress into special session in the summer of 1948. In the fall, he barnstormed the country, telling laborers, farmers, westerners—anybody who would listen—the same story: Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal had saved America, but the people had forgotten everything the Democrats had done for them and had gotten the Republican Congress as a reward for their ingratitude.
In the end, Truman managed to hold the New Deal coalition together. His Republican opponent, New York governor Thomas Dewey, actually won a smaller share of the vote in 1948 than he had against FDR in 1944. Despite the impediments of third party challenges from Wallace and States’ Rights Democrat Strom Thurmond, Truman re-created the old alliance of union workers, urban ethnics, farmers, westerners, and most of the Solid South. Congressional Republicans were swept out of power and—with the exception of a brief rebound in the early 1950s—would not win a majority of House seats for another five decades.
Bill Clinton’s ascent to the presidency was about as unlikely as Harry Truman’s. Prior to the 1992 campaign, he had been known outside Arkansas primarily as the guy who bored delegates to tears with his keynote address to the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Personal scandals would surely have stopped his nomination had he faced a stronger primary field, but the most able Democrats had opposed the Gulf war, effectively disqualifying them from running against George H.W. Bush. Clinton also got a boost in the 1992 campaign from Ross Perot’s sharp critique of Bush, who had the misfortune of governing during a mild cyclical recession. Add to that a weak campaign by the incumbent Republican, including a disastrous party convention in Houston, and the obvious conclusion is that everything that could have broken Clinton’s way did. Yet he pulled in only 43 percent of the vote. President Bush won 37 percent, which was about where his job approval numbers were, but the remainder of the anti-Bush vote went to Perot, who, though he carried not a single state, did better than any third party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.
Once in office, Clinton proceeded to misread his electoral mandate, completely and utterly. As Michael Barone put it in the Almanac of American Politics: “Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 because he campaigned as a New Democrat, one who would use a combination of market and government mechanisms to reform public sector institutions that weren’t working.” This included promises to reinvent government, cut middle class taxes, balance the budget, and “end welfare as we know it.” But, upon taking office, Clinton governed as an old-style, New Deal Democrat: He hiked domestic spending, increased taxes rather than reduced them, backed a pork-filled anti-crime bill and stiff gun control measures, and pushed a government takeover of health care. All of this put his congressional majority in jeopardy. Not a single Republican supported his 1993 budget proposal, and because it passed by just one vote in both chambers, the GOP could credibly claim that every Democrat who supported the measure had cast a decisive vote. The Democrats lost effective control of the House after a minor procedural vote on the crime bill went against the leadership, and soon thereafter the Clinton health care proposal crashed and burned. Despite the fact that the United States enjoyed peace and prosperity, the Democratic party was soundly rebuked at the polls in 1994, losing a net of 54 House seats, 8 Senate seats, and control of both chambers, which had not happened since 1952.
Yet the events of 1995-96 would offer the first glimpse of a quality for which both Bill and Hillary Clinton have become famous: They are at their best when they are running from behind. In the spring of 1995, Clinton had to defend his relevance and suffer the ignominy of being turned down by two of the three major networks when he wanted them to televise a prime-time address. Nevertheless, he implemented an ingenious strategy that was actually consistent with his 1992 campaign: He would triangulate, placing himself not just between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, but above the partisan divide to represent the interests of all Americans. He agreed to cut taxes and spending, reform welfare, implement a line-item veto provision, and move toward a balanced budget. He took his stand against the Republicans on the scope of the cuts in government spending. When Republicans proposed a budget that went too far in Clinton’s judgment, including reductions in the growth of Medicare spending, Clinton vetoed it. This shut down the government. Ultimately, the public would blame congressional Republicans, as Clinton insisted he wanted to balance the budget as much as anybody, but not at the expense of senior citizens.
The showdown over the budget boosted Clinton’s numbers in early 1996. In January, his job approval ticked above 50 percent in the Gallup poll, where it would remain for the rest of his tenure. By the spring, he would open up a double-digit lead over Bob Dole, the presumptive Republican nominee. A late-breaking campaign finance scandal kept his 1996 total under 50 percent of the popular vote, but with Perot again mounting a third-party challenge, Clinton’s 49.2 amounted to a smashing personal victory. The triangulation strategy, however, shortened Clinton’s coattails; by differentiating himself from both congressional parties, he limited his ability to help congressional Democrats, who picked up only three seats in the House. Triangulation during Clinton’s second term also alienated the liberal wing of the Democratic coalition. Enough liberals peeled off in 2000 to enable Ralph Nader to play spoiler, as Vice President Al Gore fell just 537 votes short of victory.
Two presidents, two strategies, two victories. What to make of this? One possibility is that both approaches are timeless. If this is so, President Obama can go on the attack, as Truman did, or triangulate, as Clinton did, and win either way. But there’s more to the story.
Truman’s strategy made sense in the context of 1948. The last Gallup poll before Roosevelt’s death found FDR’s approval rating at 65 percent, astonishing for a president who had been in office 12 years. The fact that Roosevelt could break with tradition and win four presidential elections, carrying well over 50 percent of the popular vote every time, shows just how committed the country was to him. In 1948, people still vividly remembered the Great Depression, the failure of Herbert Hoover’s economic program, and the success of the New Deal. In recent years, analysts like Amity Shlaes have questioned how effective the New Deal policies actually were, but what matters for our purposes is what the public perceived—and the public believed the New Deal had worked. In an important sense, then, the New Deal coalition was still alive and well after World War II. Truman’s vacillation in the early days of his administration swept the Republicans into power in the midterms, but his reassertion of FDR-style liberalism helped revive the Roosevelt majority.
Matters were very different in 1994. The New Deal coalition had started to fracture in 1968, when the North-South split in the Democratic party handed the presidency to Richard Nixon. The disastrous candidacy of George McGovern—which more than anything represented the revival of Henry Wallace-style liberalism—and the failed presidency of Jimmy Carter had critically damaged the Democratic majority. This gave conservative Republicans, who had not really been in charge since the Coolidge administration in the mid-1920s, their first opportunity in generations. The success of the Reagan administration vindicated conservative Republicanism and peeled off huge portions of the old New Deal vote.
Bill Clinton seemed to have understood this when he first ran for president. Having been the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, he was prominent among those calling for a more moderate Democratic party. Yet the early Clinton administration did not govern in a centrist manner and was rebuked for it in the 1994 midterms. This defeat, moreover, unlike that in 1946, was not a blip. The Republicans triumphed in 1994 not because loyal Democrats uncharacteristically voted Republican, but because over the previous 12 years supporters of Reagan, Bush, and Perot had begun backing Republican candidates for Congress.
Thus, 1946 and 1994 were very different midterm elections. In 1946, a still essentially liberal country voiced its frustration and exasperation with the painful readjustment to peacetime. Once balance was restored to the economy, the country was prepared to move back to the left. In 1994, the country was no longer liberal at its core, and the 1994 midterms were an ideological correction of the leftward bent of the early Clinton administration. Thus, the strategies of Truman and Clinton made sense in their respective political contexts. Each president made an accurate judgment of what his midterm rebuke meant in the broader scheme, and thus was able to respond in an effective way.
It follows that the success or failure of President Obama’s response to a new Republican Congress will depend very much on whether he accurately reads the public’s mind. If he thinks the country is center-right, he will accommodate, as Clinton did. If he thinks it is center-left, he will “give ’em hell,” as Truman did.
So far, the president has telegraphed that he intends to fight. He has warned that a Republican victory would mean “hand-to-hand combat.” A comment the president made in a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine suggests he expects Republicans to move his way, not vice versa:
It may be that regardless of what happens after this election, they feel more responsible . . . either because they didn’t do as well as they anticipated, and so the strategy of just saying no to everything and sitting on the sidelines and throwing bombs didn’t work for them, or they did reasonably well, in which case the American people are going to be looking to them to offer serious proposals and work with me in a serious way.
What is animating this sentiment? Part of the answer appears to be Obama’s belief that, deep down, the country is with him. He seems to think that Republicans—much like their forebears in 1946—have made political hay out of economic uncertainty, but that when it comes time to govern they will have to come to the table, his table, or suffer a rebuke in 2012.
Ever since the conservative wing of the Republican party triumphed in 1980, liberal analysts have been warning the GOP that it must moderate if it is to survive. The most recent iteration of this argument is the “emerging Democratic majority” theory, long promulgated by John Judis of the New Republic and Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress, which has ties to the Obama administration. In essence, their theory holds that demographic, social, and economic changes will move the country back to the center-left. They saw the 2008 presidential election as the first of many victories for this new majority.
The president’s apparent plan to fight the GOP makes sense in light of this theory. If he thinks his election really was a leftward realignment, it follows that he will hold the new line against the conservatives, who in this view cannot sustain their coalition into 2012.
If this is what President Obama is thinking, I believe he has bet wrong. There are two glaring problems with the notion that 2008 was a realigning election that brought forth a new Democratic majority, which has only to be revived in 2012. First, while the exit polls confirm that President Obama brought new voters into his coalition, they also show that his decisive advantage was the 17 percent of Bush 2004 voters who bolted the GOP coalition in 2008. If John McCain had managed to keep these Bush voters in his camp, he would have won the White House. What’s more, for all the new voters President Obama brought into the Democratic coalition, he lost almost as many Hillary Clinton primary voters, 15 percent of whom backed John McCain. Indeed, the exit polls indicate that, had Hillary Clinton been the nominee, she would have won by 11 points, while Obama won by 7 points.
Second, the idea of 2008 as a realigning election implicitly misframes the process by which voters shift their allegiances. The election of 1932, for instance, did not signify an electoral realignment. The realignment came during the New Deal as FDR used the powers of the federal government to shift the loyalties of the voting public. Similarly, the election of 1860 did not realign Northern politics; rather, victory in the Civil War did. Ditto the tumultuous period of 1893-1896: The Republicans went on to enjoy a 30-year majority not because William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan for president in 1896, but because the country turned an economic corner shortly thereafter for which the GOP could take credit. Finally, the Reagan Revolution lasted as long as it did because of the tremendous prosperity of the 1980s. In each instance, the president who pulled off the realignment did so by contrasting his record of successful governing with the failures of his opponents.
This essential ingredient is missing for Obama in 2010. The president’s economic policy has broadly been judged not to have succeeded, and his health care law may be the most unpopular significant legislation in 100 years. Voters still look negatively upon the record of President George W. Bush, and they still would like to see President Obama succeed, but they do not believe the country has turned a corner. If it doesn’t recover before the 2012 election, President Obama will have a difficult time reconstituting his electoral coalition—while Republicans, if they play their cards right, will enjoy a terrific opportunity to consolidate their midterm gains.
Soon enough, we shall see what Obama does.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.