Bill Clinton and the GOP Congress: The Perpetual Transition Meets the Model Transition

By Jones, Charles O. | Brookings Review, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Bill Clinton and the GOP Congress: The Perpetual Transition Meets the Model Transition


Jones, Charles O., Brookings Review


The presidency of Bill Clinton was a work in progress when the fall mid-term elections dramatically altered national politics. Ever in transition, the Clinton White House now faces a well-defined and energized counter-government on Capitol Hill. Working with, and against, this new Congress is an extraordinarily demanding assignment for the president. Indeed, no election in this century offers a real precedent for what happened in the 1994 elections. The last first-term president whose party lost its House and Senate majorities in the mid-term election was Dwight Eisenhower, in 1954. But his party's loss was no match for the Democrats' recent debacle. The 1954 Republicans' net loss of 19 seats in the House of Representatives gave Democrats a 232-203 edge there. A net loss of only one seat gave the Democrats a 48-47 majority in the Senate (with one independent). And in 1954 Democrats were more or less reclaiming their own territory: they had been the majority party for all but four years in the Senate since 1932 and in the House since 1930. Nor was President Eisenhower a major issue in the 1954 campaign.

The substantial first-term losses for elected presidents during this century, detailed in table 1, are of two types. In 1910 and 1930 Republicans suffered large losses - comparable to those of the 1994 Democrats - in both houses but gave up their majority in the House only. In the presidential elections that followed, both Presidents Taft and Hoover were resoundingly defeated.

In the mid-term elections of 1914, 1922, and 1966, presidents who had won landslides two years before - and whose coattails had helped win inflated majorities for their parties in Congress - suffered large losses but kept working majorities in both Houses. In the subsequent presidential elections, Wilson won reelection narrowly (the smallest Electoral College margin in this century), Coolidge (having assumed the presidency after Harding died in 1923) won handily, and Johnson did not seek reelection.

One other first-term president whose party was trounced in mid-term congressional elections - Harry S. Truman in 1946 - has been of particular interest to the Clinton White House, no doubt because of Truman's come-back victory in 1948. The Democrats did lose big in 1946, suffering net losses of 55 House seats and 12 Senate seats. Further, the 80th Congress is the only other post-World War II case of a Democratic president and a Republican Congress.

But the parallels between 1946 and 1994 stop there. Truman was not an elected president in 1946. In fact, he was a reluctant candidate for vice president when Roosevelt decided to dump Henry Wallace in 1944. Nor was Truman active in the 1946 campaign. Advised to remain silent, he did. The Republicans' question "Had enough?" referred as much to the 14 years of Democratic rule as to Truman himself as president.

And the 1946 congressional Republicans had no "Contract with America" to be voted on in their first 100 days. In fact, Arthur Krock concluded in his post-1946 election analysis that the Republicans had devised no strategy to manage their landslide. As they surveyed the advantage for 1948 of "carrying Congress . . . against a president of the opposite party in mid-term" and "the disadvantage of public responsibility for the record of Congress in the interim," they were uncertain how to proceed.

Newt Gingrich had no such trouble in 1994.

The Bold New Opposition

Normally a mid-term election is hard to interpret. The president is not on the ballot, though the inclination is to see the results as a test of his administration. "All politics" is said to be "local" and it is usually difficult to identify a national theme to explain the outcome. With only one-third of the Senate seats up for election, it is hard to generalize about issues and party strength. Turnout varies greatly throughout states and congressional districts. And a mid-course adjustment may naturally follow a substantial party win in a presidential year.

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Bill Clinton and the GOP Congress: The Perpetual Transition Meets the Model Transition
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