Midterm power shifts can breed overconfidence

The aftermaths of the 1946 and 1994 elections offer lessons for Democrats, should they win control of Congress.

Two weeks before the 1946 midterms, there wasn't much Harry Truman could do. Heeding the best advice he could find -- but still attempting to draw an inside straight -- Truman lifted unpopular federal price controls on meat, traveled to New York City to address the United Nations, and took a train home to Independence, to vote where he could be photographed amid admiring Missourians.

But with his popularity so low nationally that Democratic candidates wouldn't mention him, the president complied with party Chairman Robert Hannegan's request to stay off the campaign trail. Truman, who attended more major-league baseball games than any other president, steered clear of the World Series, even though his beloved St. Louis Cardinals were in it. Nothing helped.

"To err is Truman" went the gleeful Republican pun. In a succinct slogan aimed at the president who had been in office only 18 months and at his party, which had ruled Capitol Hill for 16 years, the GOP asked: "Had enough? Vote Republican."

On Election Night, Truman didn't even glance at the returns. Instead, he convened a poker game with the traveling press corps. Their train pulled into Union Station on the morning of November 6. By then, it was official: With their huge pickup of 55 seats in the House and a dozen in the Senate, Republicans had taken control of Congress for the first time since before the Great Depression.

The question, of course, was what they would do with it. These Republicans had run against entrenched Democratic high-handedness but not directly against the memory of the sainted Franklin Roosevelt. Nonetheless, conservative voices wanted the GOP to sweep away the New Deal. Time magazine put Republican Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio on its cover in January 1947, calling him "the biggest political figure in Washington." Truman went unmentioned in the story.

Sixty years later, pollsters say that a majority of voters are expressing a similarly dim view of the party in power -- but this time it's the Republicans. GOP strategists are privately conceding that the looming November 7 elections look bad, and their mechanism for dealing with disaster increasingly consists of telling themselves that Democrats -- with their uncontrollable hatred of President Bush -- are certain to overplay their hand if they win, giving Republicans a chance to come back in 2008.

This is a wish, not a strategy, but it raises historical questions worthy of contemplation. Newly minted congressional majorities sometimes have assured their own comeuppances by exceeding their mandates, the most-clear-cut examples coming after the elections of 1946 and 1994.

Current Democratic leaders insist they won't make that mistake if they gain control, but political forces at work all but ensure that some overreaching will occur. This is the natural cycle of politics. After all, if voters replace one party with another as a corrective -- they want a change in course.

"Given public disenchantment with the Bush administration," says Brookings Institution congressional expert Sarah Binder, "I would suspect that the public might be comfortable with an investigations focus."

Perhaps, but these things must be done delicately.

Six decades ago, after strikes shut down the steel, automotive, railroad, and coal industries, Americans feared that organized labor had become too powerful. Truman agreed, but he and the Democrats paid the price -- for a while. In 1947, the 80th Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, giving the president more power to deal with labor unrest.

Although Truman requested this authority in his 1947 State of the Union address, he vetoed Taft-Hartley. Republicans overrode the veto, but as Congress soon learned, a president has certain advantages in such a fight, and Truman used them.

"Naturally, after 16 years the Republicans were full of piss and vinegar," says University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato. "But so was Truman, a man not to be trifled with."

By 1948, while running for his own election, Truman denounced his rivals as the "Do-Nothing" Congress. Actually, the 80th Congress created the Air Force, the CIA, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and funded every element of the Truman Doctrine, including the Marshall Plan.

"It's astounding the things that Congress accomplished," says congressional scholar Michael Robinson, co-author of an account of the 80th Congress. "It's a complete crock to call it a 'Do-Nothing' Congress. And Truman knew it."

But Truman also knew that despite the significant accomplishments of the 80th Congress, many Americans had concluded that with their myriad investigations and oversight hearings, Republicans had overindulged their partisan impulses, giving credence to accusations of gridlock.

"Even though they did so much, there were a lot of partisan clashes, and oversight-type investigations that went too far," congressional expert Norman Ornstein says. "The lesson here is that except in the most extraordinary circumstances, Congress cannot stage a confrontation with the president and win."

The Name "Gingrich" Ring a Bell?

A dozen years ago, American voters sent another corrective message to a Democratic president and his party. Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 as a "different kind of Democrat," but President Clinton and a Democratic Congress raised income-tax rates, reneged on campaign finance reform, envisioned a vast new health care bureaucracy, and proposed expanding the welfare entitlement, not ending it.

In 1994, voters gave their assessment of this record: 52 Democratic House seats were lost (not counting party switchers), along with eight Senate seats, and both chambers of Congress were entrusted to the GOP. "The president is relevant," Clinton said in a much-spoofed presidential utterance. What isn't remembered is what Clinton said next: "I am willing to work with Republicans.... I have shown good faith. The question is, what happens now?"

That was the question, indeed. It is an article of faith in political circles that Republicans overreached after the 1994 Gingrich revolution, but in assessing how Democrats might behave in 2007 if they have a majority -- or how they should behave -- it's important to be precise.

The Republicans did not overreach by moving swiftly in their "first 100 hours" to consolidate their power and pass their vaunted Contract With America. Mostly, these were popular conservative perennials, many of them found in Ronald Reagan's State of the Union addresses.

But Gingrichism itself was a different matter. Newt Gingrich delivered an inaugural-like address when he was installed as House speaker in January 1995, and by the end of the year he was dabbling in New Hampshire's presidential wading pool. This assertion of power was uncharted territory for a House member, and even some conservatives wondered whether their boss was trying to move them too far, too fast.

Christian Coalition honcho Ralph Reed solemnly assured The New York Times that Reed realized that "social change proceeds in America with deliberate and slow steps." But the incoming speaker publicly proclaimed something else entirely. "The country's decided that it wants the president to compromise with Congress," he said. "It does not mean the Congress should compromise with the president."

"Perhaps so," veteran Associated Press columnist Walter Mears responded. "But compromise has something in common with the tango. It takes two."

Gingrich's comment did more than reveal an idiosyncratic view of the nature of compromise. It also foreshadowed Republicans' tendency to overplay their hand, which led to the 1995 and 1996 budget showdowns that helped Clinton win re-election, and to the impeachment proceedings that helped Democrats chip away at the Republican House majority in 1998. Within weeks of that election, Gingrich was forced to resign, even as congressional excess reached its pinnacle with the Clinton impeachment.

Inside the White House, Bush and his advisers can take solace in the fact that Clinton showed how effective a president can be as a counterpuncher. One moral of the story is that a House speaker who sets himself up as an alternative president is pushing his -- or her -- luck. Another lesson from those years is that, as Clinton himself used to say (quoting Voltaire), the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

As part of his ruthless "K Street Project," former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay equated perfection with GOP hegemony over the hiring practices and political donations of lobbying firms and trade associations. When he tried to prevent the Electronic Industries Alliance from hiring former Rep. Dave McCurdy, D-Okla., DeLay earned a rebuke from the House Ethics Committee -- and McCurdy still heads the EIA. DeLay's aggressive fundraising tactics eventually got him indicted, and cost him his seat.

Democrats' Favorite Dream: Watergate

Democrats certainly know this history and insist they won't repeat it. The precedent they aspire to emulate is 1974, when the Watergate scandal brought 75 new Democrats to the House. That huge class of freshmen didn't need to tangle with Richard Nixon -- he was already gone -- but they had enough of a sense of their place in history to hire their own staff director and to make plain to the Democratic establishment that they didn't intend to be silent.

A balance-altering Democratic class in January 2007 would certainly be smaller, and because it would hail from swing districts, it might constitute a natural brake on liberal excess. This could be the best thing that a Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have going for her, some veteran Democrats say.

"My fear is that the Democrats will wake up on November 8 and think they did it," says Les Francis, a moderate who arrived in 1975 from California as chief of staff to freshman Democratic Rep. Norman Mineta and who ended up working as congressional liaison in Jimmy Carter's White House. He is speaking only half in jest. "This year is shaping up as a repudiation of Republicans, not an endorsement of some Democratic platform," he explained. "And that's not a bad thing."

Ideologues might prefer a mandate, or an agenda, if not a "contract" with America from a Democratic-controlled House in 2007. There are a couple of important reasons, however, why it would behoove Speaker-in-waiting Pelosi and her Democratic Senate counterpart Harry Reid to move cautiously in enacting it.

The first is that swing voters tend to look askance at victors' pronouncements that a single election constitutes a "revolution." Moreover, aside from the Democrats' liberal base, most people do not necessarily equate congressional legislative activity with a good thing.

In a Gallup Poll commissioned by CNN and released last week, 54 percent of those surveyed believe that government is doing things that are best left to "individuals and business," compared with 37 percent who wanted government to "do more" to solve the country's problems. In other words, a majority of Americans still subscribe to the sentiment of Gideon J. Tucker, a New York judge, who wrote in 1866: "No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the Legislature is in session."

But lawmakers can alienate voters from the opposition direction, too. As Clinton and Truman proved, congressional excess is in the eye of the beholder. And one way that presidents can make this claim stick is to accuse the opposition party controlling Congress of effecting legislative gridlock for partisan purposes -- of overreaching by thwarting the president, or, as Truman said, by doing "nothing."

Clinton publicly employed the term "gridlock" about 30 times in the two years between the 1994 Republican sweep and his own re-election -- and not in a positive way. At his first press conference after the 1946 GOP conquest, Truman served notice that the results hadn't made him any less feisty. In fact, he appeared to have already planned his gambit of accusing Republicans of hubris.

"We are set upon a hard course," Truman said at the November 11 press conference. "An effort by either the executive or the legislative branch of the government to embarrass the other for partisan gain would bring frustration to our country. To follow the course with honor to ourselves and with benefit to our country, we must look beyond and above ourselves and our party interests for the true bearing."

As it happens, Truman was neither bluffing nor tipping his hand. The old poker player from Independence, Mo., might advise today's political players to hold their cards close to the vest, and to refrain from betting all of their chips early in the game.

Neither Pelosi nor Reid (even though he hails from Nevada) is known for engaging in late-night poker games with the journalists who cover them. George W. Bush isn't, either, although if the Democrats take back Congress, he might be the one sitting at the table with almost nothing up his sleeve. But as the protagonist in Cool Hand Luke said -- and as "Give 'Em Hell Harry" and "Slick Willie" later proved -- sometimes nothing is a pretty cool hand.