Ups and downs in history of one-party rule

If Obama wins and Democrats gain greater control in Congress, it could happen.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
Power team? Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill in July.

Washington may well be on the verge of becoming a one-party town, with Democratic Sen. Barack Obama looking strong to capture the presidency next Tuesday and Democrats poised to expand their majorities in both houses of Congress.

The history of one-party rule in America is fraught with triumphs and peril.

Franklin Roosevelt swept into power in 1933 at a time of economic depression, and, with a Democratic congressional majority behind him, was able to enact a raft of legislation in just a few months. But in his second term, President Roosevelt overreached and ran afoul of his own party.

Two more recent presidents, Democrats Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, also began their tenure with congressional majorities – in Carter’s case, quite sizable ones – but with both men, the relationship grew tense. Carter enjoyed some success with Congress, but his outside-the-Beltway style, and the aides he brought with him from Georgia, often clashed with the Washington insiders.

With Clinton, the failures of his first two years – fueled by a cantankerous Democratic majority – cost his party control of both houses in the first mid-term elections. It was only when Clinton faced Republican majorities in Congress that his presidency took off.

For Senator Obama, should he become president, the most relevant historical example is President Franklin Roosevelt, says presidential historian Robert Dallek.

“We were in dire straits,” says Mr. Dallek. “As Roosevelt said himself in his first inaugural, ‘This country is asking for action and action now.’ That’s what he gave them. In the first 100 days, he passed 15 major pieces of legislation. He couldn’t have done it unless he had a crisis and strong party support.”

Obama, too, appears poised to push initiatives in a range of areas, including a second economic stimulus package, healthcare reform, changes to tax policy, and energy reform. He has also pledged to begin, right away, the process of withdrawing US troops from Iraq.

But Democrats say they are well aware that, even with expected strong majorities in both houses, there are no guarantees. The nation’s economic woes could put healthcare reform, an expensive proposition, on hold. By definition, a large majority means a broad coalition, with conservative Democrats side-by-side with liberals, all keeping an eye on their voters back home and working toward reelection. Democrats know that holding the coalition together will take work, and that they won’t necessarily have much time.

“The point is, if it doesn’t work, then two years later, voters can change it,” says Dallek. “That’s the advantage of this congressional system, in which the House has to be elected every two years.”

Still, in an election year that has gone strikingly the Democrats’ way, it is looking increasingly possible that the party can win large enough majorities to weather some setbacks and not lose their majorities in two years.

In addition – in contrast with Clinton’s first two years, when the Republicans were organized to take over the House after 40 years as the minority – this year’s Republican Party is in full-blown crisis. There is no 2008 version of Newt Gingrich, working the back benches, preparing for the next GOP revolution.

The conviction Monday of Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska for lying on financial disclosure forms puts his reelection in doubt, and could bring the Democrats – currently holding a slim 51-seat majority in the Senate – closer to capturing the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

If that happens, Republicans will lose a key tool to check the Democrats’ power. Of course, there is no guarantee that a 60-vote majority would always be filibuster-proof. After all, one senator who caucuses with the Democrats - independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman – has been one of Republican nominee John McCain’s biggest backers in the campaign. Other conservative Democrats could also peel off on some issues.

Still, the American public is showing unprecedented support for one-party rule in Washington, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Fifty percent of likely voters say they would prefer that the same party control both the White House and Congress, a new high for that poll. Thirty percent said they wanted split-party rule.

Michael Waldman, a former speechwriter for Clinton, sees a different dynamic at play in Obama’s relations with Congress, if he wins the presidency, from what his old boss experienced.

“If the Democrats gain seats, they’ll attribute it to Obama coattails, which Clinton did not have,” says Mr. Waldman. Back in 1992, when Clinton won the presidency, “there was a sense that Democrats only got kudos for standing up to the president of their own party.”

Now, he adds, “the Democratic leadership of Congress in both chambers seems very aware that their fortunes are tied to the success of a Democratic president, if there is one.”

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar, says that if elected, Obama and his team will have to engage in a lot of negotiations to keep his congressional majority “well-oiled and functioning.” That is especially true, he says, when the party in power wins a lot of seats in areas that traditionally favor the other party, in this case, the Republicans.

“He’s going to have to woo everyone,” says Mr. Hess, author of a new workbook for the president-elect, whoever that is. “There may be Democrats coming in who are more conservatively oriented, and who become an important part of his constituency.”

Hess recalls that soon after Carter’s inauguration, Democratic House speaker “Tip” O’Neill and White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan exchanged words “that could not be repeated in The Christian Science Monitor.”

“They were at each other’s throats,” he says. “So it doesn’t necessarily follow that everything goes swimmingly.”

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