FDR Has Suffered This, Too

Article excerpt

Byline: Julian E. Zelizer

Just when Democrats think they're making headway, voters send them a midterm message.

President Obama has warned Democratic voters not to be apathetic. "If the other side does win," he told an audience in Wisconsin on Sept. 28, "they will spend the next two years fighting for the very same policies that led to this recession in the first place." But Obama probably understated the case. Over the last century, a series of pivotal midterm elections has severely undermined liberal policies--at just those moments when it seemed they were flourishing. With polls predicting strong Republican gains, this election looks to be another such turnaround.

1938 A conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans expanded its numbers in the House and Senate after President Franklin Roosevelt unsuccessfully tried to purge conservatives from his party. The mood on Capitol Hill changed dramatically. "There was a time when I would have bled and died for him [FDR]," lamented Montana Sen. James Murray, a liberal Democrat who had strongly supported the New Deal, "but in view of the way he has been acting I don't want to have any more dealings with him and I just intend to stay away from him and he can do as he pleases."

1946 Republicans regained control of the House and Senate through a national campaign that claimed Democrats were not tough enough on communism, and criticized excessive wartime regulations such as price controls. "Bow your heads, folks," The New Republic concluded, "conservatism has hit America." The Republican congressional majority, though it would last only two years, ensured that there would be no further expansion of FDR's domestic agenda. The campaign also intensified partisan wars, pushing President Harry Truman to the right on national-security questions. …