Sometimes a President can lead his party to a comeback majority in Congress; sometimes the Congressional majority can elect their candidate instead. What will it be in '96? Margaret Warner talks with our panel of historians about the pushes and pulls of elections past.
MARGARET WARNER: We get the longer view now from presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and William Kristol, editor and publisher of The Weekly Standard. Welcome all of you. Back again, another evening? Michael, one always assumes there's a correlation between how well a presidential candidate runs and how well his party does in congressional races. But does history bear that out?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, one thing history shows in recent times is that it has a lot to do with how the President behaves. You know, tonight Bill Clinton is on that train once used by Harry Truman, and Harry Truman provides a very good example of this. Truman, as we all know, in 1946 suffered that very bad defeat. The Democrats were turned out of Congress for the first time in a long time, and when Truman ran for election in 1948, the point he kept on making was not only elect me but turn out this good for nothing Congress and let's get some work done. He campaigned very much as a party leader, and he did succeed.
He was elected, and the Democrats regained Congress. One interesting example from the other side is the Republican Presidents of the last number of years. Eisenhower in 56 ran not as a particularly strong party man. He ran a campaign that was very much centered on the personality of Ike the hero. He felt that to call himself a Republican would be a bit of a downer because the Republicans were the minority. And the result was that Eisenhower was elected, no Republican Congress.
Nixon did roughly the same thing in 72, Reagan a little bit less so in 1984. Nixon suffered the consequences. Not only was there no Democratic Congress when he was elected with almost 61 percent of the vote, but when Nixon hit trouble on Capitol Hill in 73 and 74, a lot of Republicans said you did nothing for us, we're not going to do much for you.
MARGARET WARNER: So is that the secret, Doris, that the coattails work if a President actively goes out or the candidate actively goes out and calls for it?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Absolutely. I mean in 1936 Roosevelt wanted that mandate because he wanted to make sure that he could get the conservatives out so the New Deal could go forward. And the interesting thing is he got it, obviously, but Lyndon Johnson looking back on Roosevelt in 1964 wanted his mandate, and, in fact, went and campaigned so hard for the Congressmen and the Senators, and the night that he won and they won he spent hours on the phone, almost like a camel--he didn't need any food, any drink--calling every one of them up, couldn't help but saying to them, now my margin was a little bigger than yours but you won, nonetheless.
But the interesting thing is that Johnson remembered as a young Congressman in 1937 that he saw that Roosevelt misused his mandate, that once he got in, he thought he could push anything through the Congress because they were so indebted to him, and he remembered that, and he said, I know that even though I've got this mandate, I have to keep cajoling these guys day in and day out, so he never stopped calling them through his entire time.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Haynes, then, do you--has it always been the case that if Presidents didn't actively call for, for the voters to elect their party, that, that what has happened is what Michael mentioned, that essentially the voters can go their own way?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, yes and no, but I mean, the case of Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson in those two elections, those great landslide elections, they brought huge numbers with them because of the issues in the country. It wasn't even just campaigning. The fact is you had the Great Depression, and then the fear of Barry Goldwater is going to get us in war in Vietnam. Of course, we got a war four years later under Lyndon Johnson, and he was doomed at that point. So it doesn't necessarily mean that. But there's another point.
Presidents, even if they win, they may find that they have no coattails. I mean, Jimmy Carter is a wonderful example. We've only had two Presidents the last seven elections now that have been Democrats, both minority Presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter comes in there, he, he ran behind his party. I remember Tip O'Neill was then the Speaker of the House, and he told me that I told Carter the first day when he came up and he said, I don't know about you, Mr. President, but I got 80 percent in my district, I think he might have got 50 in mine, the point being that Congress was going to assert power over a President. So how the President's popularity, if he really pulls in with him, it helps his hand in dealing with the Congress.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Absolutely.
WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: I will give two types of presidential elections basically in the last 50 years, highly partisan, ideological ones, Truman in 48, Johnson-Goldwater in 64, Reagan in 80, partisan, ideological, they brought people in with them from the Congress. If, on the other hand, you get an Eisenhower type of reelection in 56 or Nixon in 72 running away from their party, there are no coattails. Republicans lost seats in 56 when Eisenhower won by 15 points. The Republicans lost seats in the Senate in 72 when Nixon won by 23 points.
Clinton is running, it seems to me, an Eisenhower, Nixon type of reelection, and Andy Kohut mentioned the welfare bill, and that was the key moment. When he signed a Republican welfare bill, a bill passed by the Republican Congress, he signaled he's no Harry Truman. He was not going to really go take on the Republican Congress. He wasn't going to go to the country and say, I need a Democratic Congress to govern. He was going to go to the country and say, well, I can govern some of the Republican Congress, and I can also check them, but reelect me, but, you know, take care of Congress on your own.
MARGARET WARNER: But why, other than the example you used about Eisenhower, why have Presidents ever chosen to run apart from their party?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Presidents in modern times tend to do that, especially Presidents who are part of minority parties because they feel that their personal appeal is stronger than the party's, so why should they burden themselves. Nixon in--
MARGARET WARNER: Even though they know that they would be able to operate a lot more effectively if they got a Congress of their own party?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They do, but there's something about an election year that causes a President and maybe even Bill Clinton to think a little bit more about the election year than what might befall him in year five if he is reelected.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: It also--Bill Clinton did better with a Republican Congress in 95 and 96 than with a Democratic Congress in 93/94, so it's not so clear that Bill Clinton does--thinks to himself, goes to sleep at night thinking, gee, I wish I had that Democratic Congress of 93/'94 back.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And one thing is that in 1992, Bill Clinton kept on making the argument Americans don't want divided government. They hate politics because everything is deadlocked. Now in a way he's making the opposite argument, which is tacitly, won't say it in public, but tacitly he's saying, good chance you might have a Republican Congress once again in 1997, one of the best rationales for reelecting me is I will guard against its excesses.
MARGARET WARNER: Has there have been--is that unprecedented, the motivation that we were just talking about here?
HAYNES JOHNSON: No, I don't think so. I don't think it's unprecedented. I think the fact is each election is shaped by the currents of the time, and Presidents have to deal with the reality. Clinton came in a minority President with a large Democratic Congress, and he couldn't anything. The health care bill is the classic example. They couldn't even bring a bill to a vote. Then the Republican Congress comes in partly because of a weakness perceived of the Democratic Congress, and then all of a sudden here we are now in this reverse switch, as Bill and Michael were saying.
MARGARET WARNER: But I mean has there ever been a case before where the President, consciously or unconsciously, appeared to not even want a Congress of his own party?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think it's more likely today because he knows the parties aren't as strong as they once were in the past, that people are not as emotionally connected to their parties as they were. They split their tickets, and media and personality counts more in these kinds of elections. In the old days when party organizations were necessary to get out the vote for both the local candidates and the presidential candidates, they would be less likely to make that obvious of a split.
So I think it's almost like he's aware that there's an anti-political feeling out there, and somehow people don't like politicians, but they're going to like him. And so he doesn't want to connect himself to old-line politics. But I think it's counterproductive in the long run because he's going to need these guys if he wants to be that great President in the second term.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Don't you think Eisenhower actually in 56 basically told the country he didn't want, you know, those Republicans coming back into power in--who ran in 53-'54? He was happy to work with Rayburn and Johnson. And I think Clinton in that respect is running a very Eisenhower-like election. Eisenhower is the only President in this century before Clinton whose party lost control of Congress in his first two years in office.
And if you look back at 1955, people say, gee, Eisenhower is a weak President, he's in real trouble, he may not be a safe bet for reelection, he's not as good a President as he was a general. By 56, he was comfortably ahead. He coasted to victory over Stevenson, just the way Clinton looks to be ahead now. But, as I say, not only did they not pick up seats; they actually lost seats. His party lost seats in Congress that year.
MARGARET WARNER: All right.
HAYNES JOHNSON: The trouble with--oh, I'm sorry.
MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry. We have to leave it there for now. See you back in the convention hours. Thanks.