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Historic Perspective on Republican Shift

November 4, 2010 at 5:46 PM EDT
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Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University and Beverly Gage of Yale University examine the results of Tuesday's midterm election in the context of races past.

JIM LEHRER: Now for some historical context on how the midterm elections turned out from presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University, and Beverly Gage, professor of American history at Yale University.

So, Michael, does the label historic legitimately fit what happened two days ago?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: I think we can stamp this one with historic.

JIM LEHRER: Because just — that word is used all the time.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Why not? But I think, in this case, it has the added advantage of being true, as they say in Texas — was historic for a couple of reasons.

One is, the Obama presidency is unlikely to be the same again. The things he was able to do with control of Congress, it is going to be very different now that he’s lost one house. Also, you don’t usually see a wave of this magnitude, hasn’t happened quite like this in at least a half-century. So, the American people were obviously saying something very powerful, very different from what they said two years ago.

JIM LEHRER: Beverly Gage, do you agree, this is — was historic?

BEVERLY GAGE, assistant professor, Yale University: I do agree. And I would say that, looking back to this half-century, we really want to look at 1946 as a really good example of a moment where a midterm actually was a sea change. And I think it’s an interesting model, going back to what we were saying with the health care debate, which is that, in 1946, there was a lot of talk about labor law, and, as this new Republican Congress came in under a Democratic president, they actually managed to do something significant.

They didn’t repeal the labor laws that had been passed during the New Deal, but they did actually succeed in passing new laws like Taft-Hartley, that severely restricted the kinds of legislations that they had been objecting to for upwards of a decade at that point.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, has there ever been a time where the outcome of a midterm election has actually caused something to be repealed or changed dramatically, a substance change?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, scholar in residence, George Mason University: Oh, boy, that’s a good question.

Let me think about that. 1930, of course, Herbert Hoover had been sold to the American people as this un — non-politician, the hero of World War 1 who defended Belgium and the rest of the world, never run for office before. Both parties wanted to make him president in 1920. The slogan was, “Who but Hoover?” He was elected in 1928 with very high expectations.

And then, of course, Wall Street collapses. And, in 1930, the Democrats come within a whisker of taking over the House. And then, through a series of bi-elections, they actually take the House. And there’s no doubt that they stopped Hoover’s program cold…

JIM LEHRER: In its tracks?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: … and enshrined Hoover in public memory to this day as a man who is synonymous not with feeding people, but denying, in effect, government aid to victims of the Depression.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have an example to throw in there, Michael, where it really made a difference?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes. A lot of Democrats in the late 1960s, as we remember, were against the Vietnam War. They said that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, Lyndon Johnson should never have gotten that out of Congress, and they campaigned on a platform, among other things of: We will repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. We will turn our backs on the Vietnam War. Congress will end this war.

They said it for years. It really took until 1970, 1971 for that to happen. I think it gives you an idea of how rarely these threats are really carried out.

JIM LEHRER: Beverly, there’s also been a lot of talk already, since Tuesday, oh, well, now the Democrats — or the president and the Democrats have to work with the Republicans.

What’s the record on that after there’s been a big shift? Has there been a sudden burst in cooperation and collaboration, or something different?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, here, I think, for a lot of people, the point of reference is 1994, when the conventional wisdom suggests we have got Bill Clinton in power. You have this Republican backlash against Clinton in 1994. And the conventional wisdom is that Clinton then goes on, very effectively, to sort of triangulate, to steal a lot of conservative Republican issues, and he himself backtracks a little bit and becomes more conservative.

I think 1994 is an interesting moment, though, because one of the things we learned about bipartisanship from that example is that, for all of Clinton’s triangulating, the Republicans on the other side weren’t really interested in compromise. They still were going to go about shutting down the government. Later, of course, we get the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal.

So, I think the track record is very mixed. And I think it really will take both sides, if this is what we’re going to see. If Obama is the only one who reaches out, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to get the response that he wants.

JIM LEHRER: How do you look at bipartisanship when you look back, Richard?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I would say ’94 is almost unique. In ’74, Gerald Ford had been in office for three months, suffered a disastrous midterm election, the combined effects of Watergate, the Nixon pardon, a very bad economy, and he spent the next two years governing by veto. The Democrats actually had a veto-proof majority in the House. He vetoed over 60 bills, mostly for budget-busting reasons. And he made most of his vetoes stick. But it was certainly not an effort to come together.

I think that — as I said, I mentioned — well, the Truman, of course, example, the Truman in ’46…

JIM LEHRER: Sure, ’46.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Truman actually takes advantage of the fact that he’s got this perfect foil, this true-blue conservative Republican Congress at odds, by the way, with the presidential wing of the Republican Party, the Eastern establishment.

And he drives a truck right through the middle and exploits the differences between the two, and rides that wave right to reelection in 1948. So, will Obama be Harry Truman? Will he be Gerald Ford?

JIM LEHRER: Well, as they say in journalism, only time will tell.


JIM LEHRER: Yes. Michael, picking up your first point about the wave, this wave went from 2008, it was — all the movement and the euphoria was one way, and, then, boom, two years later, the wave went the other way.


JIM LEHRER: Does this — does this kind of thing happen very often?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s exactly what James Madison wanted. And, in a sense, he would be glad to see what happened on Tuesday night, because he wanted the Senate to be somewhat protected from these waves, but he wanted the House to be an instant Geiger counter, to use a modern word, you know, something that…

JIM LEHRER: I can’t believe James Madison used…


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes. Well, that’s why I’m saying it wasn’t the word he used.


JIM LEHRER: OK. All right.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But you never know.

But he wanted this to register big changes in the American — in American public opinion. And I think it really did. The interesting thing, though, maybe a precedent for this, is, we have been talking about 1946, when Truman lost Congress , and there were a lot of things written at the time: This is the start of big era of Republican domination of Congress. The era lasted exactly two years.

Two years later, an even bigger wave swept the Democrats back into leadership.

JIM LEHRER: How do you — Beverly, how do you see the wave issue here? And, when you look back, what do you see?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I think that’s very much an open question. I think it’s really easy to read a lot into this midterm election.

And we have all been sort of operating on this narrative that we had the age of Roosevelt, we had the age of Reagan, and a lot of people said, in 2008, that we were entering the age of Obama. And I think the easy narrative of this midterm is, well, ha-ha. No, the age of Obama is already over. We have had this sort of conservative backlash.

But I think that’s still very much an open question. If you look at someone like Ronald Reagan, he never really controlled Congress. He didn’t actually get through a lot of the legislation that he wanted. And yet he still was able to define and really become the towering figure of his era.

And so I think the question of whether or not we’re in the age of Obama, whether we’re in some sort of new wave, or whether Obama is going to end up more like Bill Clinton, a Democratic president in a period of Republican dominance, I think that’s still very much an open question.

JIM LEHRER: Richard.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The wave — what we have not talked about yet, because, obviously, we have been looking at the top of the ticket…


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: … down-ballot, the Republican success in state legislatures and governorships is so profound, that they are estimating that…

JIM LEHRER: You’re like — Tuesday, you’re talking about.



RICHARD NORTON SMITH: They’re going to redistrict the nation for not — for 2012 and for a decade to come. There are estimates that they’re going to pick up 15 or 20 House seats simply by controlling…

JIM LEHRER: Just by maps, just by drawing maps.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: … by controlling the map, which, ironically means, instead of having to pick up, say, 25 seats two years from now for the Democrats to take the House, it’s 45 seats. And so the irony is a wave election has actually built in a Republican cushion against the next wave.

JIM LEHRER: You see it the same way, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes. And I think I would say, if this was not a wave, I don’t know what a wave is, because elections do have meaning.

And if so many Republicans were swept in the other night, it does send a message. And I think the message is, you know, to perhaps oversimplify, Barack Obama decided not to govern as a centrist, and the stimulus didn’t do what people hoped it would. If the jobless rate were 6 percent, and Obama had governed as a centrist, this wouldn’t have happened, I think, on Tuesday night. But those two things did unfold, and it did.

JIM LEHRER: Beverly, finally, is there a — in history, is there a parallel for the current Tea Party movement and its success in many races on Tuesday?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I think a lot of the themes that we saw brought up by the Tea Party, about liberal elitism, the equation of liberalism and socialism, the opposition to big government, I mean, these are all ideas that have a very long history in the United States.

What’s interesting, I think, about today’s Tea Party is that they have had so much electoral impact so quickly. If you look at, say, the early 1960s, when you actually had a fairly similar populist surge — these are the years when the John Birch Society was founded, a lot of energy and response to the election of a young liberal Democrat named John Kennedy.

But what’s interesting about that moment is that it didn’t translate into this kind of electoral impact, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. I mean, one is that the party structure was really quite different then. So, you had a conservative South, but it was a Democratic South in the 1960s.

And I think the other reason has to do to some degree with the dynamics of the conservative movement itself. You know, in the early 1960s, there was a real debate between — quote, unquote — “respectable conservatives” and extremist conservatives who are more populist variety.

And a figure like William F. Buckley comes out, says: No, I don’t think that what we today would call the Tea Party is really the way to go.

JIM LEHRER: OK. We have — speaking of going, we have to.


JIM LEHRER: Thank you, Beverly, gentlemen.

BEVERLY GAGE: Thank you.