History Shows Coattail Effect Not So Crucial to Presidents

By Chadk, Gail Russell | The Christian Science Monitor, October 14, 2012 | Go to article overview
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History Shows Coattail Effect Not So Crucial to Presidents


Chadk, Gail Russell, The Christian Science Monitor


The trifecta of national politics is for a candidate to win the White House and help his party win control of Congress on presidential "coattails."

But is it "game over" for a president when the other team controls the House, the Senate, or both? Not necessarily. Turns out, presidents don't always get what they want when their party has a majority on Capitol Hill or fail, when that majority is lost. Moreover, divided government can be the mother of legislative invention, forcing presidents to find common ground with a hostile Congress, if they can.

Past presidencies offer hints for dealing with a Congress of a different persuasion.

Numbers on 'our side' do not equal control

President Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II hero, was swept into office winning all but nine states and helping Republicans take control of the House and Senate on his coattails.

But rather than line up behind the new president, the GOP majority attacked his nominees, his legislative priorities on defense spending, and his presidential powers in foreign policy.

When Democrats won back control of the House and Senate in 1954 and kept it through the Eisenhower administration "it was a blessing in disguise," wrote Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward Smith. In short, Eisenhower made a tactical shift to the Democrats. Born in Texas, he developed close relations with House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson. The "three Texans" met weekly in joint strategy sessions that produced the Interstate Highway System and the St. Lawrence Seaway, expanded Social Security, raised the minimum wage, and established the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

President Jimmy Carter (D) a former Georgia governor who campaigned as a Washington "outsider" and tried to govern that way, too never established a working relationship with the Democrat- controlled Congress. Lawmakers complained that he lectured them and piled on more priorities than could be handled. Carter's agenda barely registered on Capitol Hill.

Divided party control of Congress is not fatal

President Ronald Reagan's 1980 election helped put Republicans in power in the Senate for the first time since 1953, but he never had a unified GOP majority in Congress to back his agenda. Reagan did not push the GOP's social agenda. Instead, he worked with some 40 conservative Democrats, such as then-Rep. Phil Gramm (D) of Texas, a member of the House Budget Committee who became a virtual surrogate for Reagan's "supply side" tax cuts and other economic proposals.

President Richard Nixon never had a Republican majority in either house. But he needed a legislative record to run on and made broad overtures to Democrats on issues ranging from welfare reform to a national health insurance partnership.

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