It has become very obvious over the last month or two that Barack Obama is on the verge of a monumental landslide, and the Democrats in Congress are poised to push the envelope on supermajorities as well. We are looking at a one party state, and not only that – its one that has been thirsting for power and will have a great deal of it in January.
Because of this reality, I think it is more than appropriate that we consider what has happened in the past when one party has taken over control of all levels of government. This is important, because whenever one party gets beat that badly, they always feel as though the world is ending, and they will be permanently relegated to irrelevance.
What is interesting, though, is that this is hardly the case. When you look back at history, one party dominance does not maintain itself for very long, and it often leads to utter disaster for the party that commands said unbridled power.
Why is that? Perhaps its because the party in power over-reaches, believing they have more support of the American people than they actually do – as detailed here. Perhaps it is because the minority party ends up looking at themselves in the mirror and diagnosing their issues, actually addressing the problems that caused them to be so roundly defeated – as I recommended here. Perhaps its a little of both.
But one thing is for sure – one party controlling the government is not something that the American people tend to like very much. Lets take a gander at some examples.
Republican Dominance 2001-2006
This is slightly inaccurate because of all the weirdness of the Senate between 2001-2003 in that first session, but for all intents and purposes, the Republican Party was the only viable, real party operating in the United States for this period. Democrats were widely demoralized, weak, leaderless and on the run – with the 2004 election marking their lowest point, as President Bush was re-elected as the first president to receive over 50% of the vote since 1988, a Senate packed with 55 Republican senators, and a house that was 232-201 Republican as well.
But, even despite the fact that viable leaders didn’t really emerge (outside Howard Dean at the DNC) this utter domination wouldn’t last. We can blame it on any number of reasons, but for the purposes of this article it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this domination wouldn’t even last through the next election.
After only five years of practical governance, the domination of the Republican Party died in the 2006 midterm elections.
Personally, I believe this five year period would have been a lot shorter had September 11th not happened, and the Republican Party not so effectively used the incident to convince people to vote for them for two election cycles.
Regardless, the complete domination of the White House, Senate and House didn’t last for very long.
Democratic Dominance 1993-1994
Boy it sure must have felt great to be a Democrat around November of 1992. Bill Clinton, in a three way race against an incumbent president and the most magnetic third party candidate in decades, managed to capture 370 electoral votes, and register a historic win. Democrats had won 57 Senate seats, and the House sat comfortably in Democrat hands by a 258-176 margin.
Wow – those numbers look eerily like what 2008 might look like. Interesting.
Regardless, for all the pronouncements in 1992 that “The Reagan Revolution was dead” and all the articles about a permanent liberal realignment, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. This unbelievable and monumental victory was short lived (again, for any number of reasons).
Only 2 years later, President Clinton had failed in a major initiative (Health Care), his approval sat at 42% and Newt Gingrich and company stormed onto the national scene, crafting what became known as “The Republican Revolution”, winning 54 Senate seats, and 230 seats in the House.
The permanent liberal realignment was dead only two years after it had been declared. The typically bad year for the president’s party in midterms (a historical trend that goes back decades) was especially bad for Clinton and company, and all their dreams disappeared in favor of divided government.
Two years – not exactly a permanent movement.
Democratic Dominance 1977-1981
This one really looked permanent. In 1977, the Democrats had already had a stranglehold on Congress unbroken since 1955 and added to their majorities with 61 Senators (there is that dreaded supermajority) and a whopping 292 House members (that’s 67% of the House – another supermajority). Jimmy Carter, the genial southern governor had won nearly 300 electoral votes and defeated the incumbent president Gerald Ford.
On top of all that, the Republican brand was utterly destroyed. The country still had the memory of Watergate fresh in their mind, and the stain of Nixon was all over Republicans everywhere.
But there’s more. At this point in the country’s history, since the 1932 election Democrats had won the house out of 21 out of the last 23 times, the Senate 21 out of 23 times, and the presidency 8 out of 12 elections. When Republicans won the White House, it was moderates like Eisenhower and Nixon, and when they won in Congress – it was an aberration.
Seeing Carter elected in 1976 with two supermajorities in Congress must have been devastating. Honestly at that point, I don’t know how Republicans didn’t just give up – Carter was a nice guy with command of a unified party that had domination over the entire country. Kind of puts what it is to be a Republican today in a bit of perspective.
But alas, it is always the darkest before the dawn, and as depressed as Republicans were in 1976 – they would be rewarded with adulation in 1980 as Ronald Reagan won 489 electoral votes and the Republicans recaptured the Senate.
4 years. Yet another domination by a single party that ends in ruin within only a short time. This one was especially noteworthy, because the figure that emerged from the carnage of the Republican Party in 1980 became a transformative figure that conservatives have since latched on to as their political hero.
Previous One Party Domination
I’m not going to detail every single instance where one party controlled the entire government, but some of the others at least deserve mention.
From 1961 through 1969, Democrats controlled the White House, the Senate and the House. This spanned the entirety of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and ended when Richard Nixon won in a landslide in 1968.
That was a relatively successful period of party dominance – it lasted eight years. Yes, a long time, but still it isn’t exactly unbearable for a minority party. That “unbearable” period would come a little further in our past.
Before the Kennedy / Johnson years, Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed an electoral sweep in 1952 as the Republicans re-entered majorities in Congress and retook the White House for the first time since Herbert Hoover.
Sadly, this only lasted for two years – during the mid-term 1954 election, Democrats retook Congress, and would build on their majorities every election thereafter.
But easily the most astonishing period of one party dominance in the 20th century was the period between 1933 and 1947 – a fourteen year window of absolute, total, complete control of every level of government under one of history’s most noteworthy presidents, Franklin Roosevelt.
This period was somewhat unusual, and driven by the earth shattering change to electoral politics instituted by FDR, coupled with the second world war and its “don’t change horses in mid-stream” logic.
I think it is clear that the Armageddon many people are predicting is not exactly as devastating as it could be. In the past, many one party periods in our history have seen more dominant majorities – and they still go down in 2-6 years.
Liberals can claim that this election is some kind of permanent realignment if they want, but history has shown us that such levels of control are not tolerated by the American people for very long, and the minority party almost always makes important adjustments to its strategy and message to be more appealing to the electorate.
So Republicans, stock up on your whiskey and vodka for November 4th, but try not to drink yourself into a coma. The aftermath of this election may in fact be what we need to reset this party on a path of sanity that it has been lacking for years, even when it was in the majority.
My advice? Take a look at the domination of Congress by the Democrats between 1933 and 1995 and say to yourselves, “never again”. The White House is important, but I believe Congress is more important. The best economic management we had in the 20th Century was with a Republican Congress and a Democratic president – so its clear that control of Congress will allow the party to reign in the excesses of a Democratic president. No such balance occurs when a Republican is in the White House and there is a Democratic Congress. I would focus all of my efforts on retaking Congress and keeping hold of it this time.
But whatever happens, take solace in the fact that some time within the next decade Republicans will in fact come roaring back, and the Democrats will have a turn at feeling depressed.
This, like most things political, is cyclical.