Could This be a 1946 Election?
When it comes to Congressional Elections, the foremost expert in the country is Michael Barone who has been studying these elections district by district for 50 years. His Almanac of American Politics, which you may browse on line here , is the reference work for political professionals and political junkies. He sees signs that the Congressional elections this year might resemble the Republican sweep in 1946.
Recent polls tell me that the Democratic Party is in the worst shape I have seen during my 50 years of following politics closely. So I thought it would be interesting to look back at the biggest Republican victory of the last 80 years, the off-year election of 1946. Republicans in that election gained 13 seats in the Senate and emerged with a 51–45 majority there, the largest majority that they enjoyed between 1930 and 1980. And they gained 55 seats in the House, giving them a 246–188 majority in that body, the largest majority they have held since 1930. The popular vote for the House was 53% Republican and 44% Democratic, a bigger margin than Republicans have won ever since. And that’s even more impressive when you consider that in 1946 Republicans did not seriously contest most seats in the South. In the 11 states that had been part of the Confederacy, Democrats won 103 of 105 seats and Republicans won only 2 seats in east Tennessee. In the 37 non-Confederate states, in contrast, Republicans won 246 of 330 seats, compared to only 85 for Democrats.
There are some intriguing similarities between the political situation in 1946 and the political situation today.
First, Democrats were promising (or threatening) to vastly increase the size and scope of government. Government’s share of gross domestic product had risen to over 40% in World War II, and it was obvious that there would be some scaling back. At the same time, the Allied victory in World War II had enhanced the prestige of the state, just as the 1930s Depression weakened faith in free markets. In Britain, the 1942 Beveridge Report urged creating a welfare state after the war, and the Labour Party won a resounding victory in the July 1945 election and promptly proceeded to adopt the Beveridge recommendations and more.
In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt in his January 1944 State of the Union address echoed the Beveridge Report. As I pointed out in my 1990 book Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan, he called for “steeply graduated taxes, government controls on crop prices and food prices [and] continued controls on wages . . . Government should guarantee everyone a job, an education, and clothing, housing, medical care, and financial security against the risks of old age and sickness.” “True individual freedom,” Roosevelt said, “cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
Roosevelt, who declared after Pearl Harbor that he was no longer Dr. New Deal but was now Dr. Win the War, was clearly contemplating returning to his former role after the war was over. This despite the fact that in his second term the New Deal was proving unpopular. Gallup polls from 1937 to 1940 saw majorities opposing Roosevelt’s never-enacted “Third New Deal” and supporting cuts in government spending, favoring curbs in the power of labor unions, and opposing welfare programs. Majorities said that New Deal programs were deterring businesses from creating jobs. Roosevelt was evidently calculating that government’s success in the war effort would transform public opinion, as it indeed did in Britain.
His successor Harry Truman took the same view. In September 1945, less than a month after the surrender of Japan, he called for continued price controls, a full-employment bill, a higher minimum wage, a public- and private-housing bill, and only limited cuts in the high wartime tax rates. In December 1945 he called for national health insurance.
The Congress elected in 1944 had Democratic majorities in the Senate (57–38) and the House (242–191). But relatively few of these Democrats were ardent New Dealers. Most Southern Democrats favored farm price supports but opposed much of the rest of the New Deal agenda—and were adamantly opposed to Truman’s call to make permanent the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee. Many Northern Democrats were products of big city machines with no firm commitments on public policy. Other Northern Democrats were from rural areas that had supported the more Jeffersonian, pre-Roosevelt Democratic Party but opposed big-government programs. As a result, little of the Roosevelt-Truman policy agenda became law. Congress did pass the full-employment bill in 1946, which established the president’s Council of Economic Advisers and contained language that suggested but did not require the government to run budget deficits to maintain full employment. The minimum wage was not increased, the housing bill failed to pass, and Congress did not seriously consider government-provided healthcare.
One price controls Truman and the Democratic Congress wavered. Truman removed controls on building materials in September 1945 and reimposed them in December. Meat rationing was discontinued in December 1945. Truman got Congress to continue the Office of Price Administration past its expiration date of June 1946, but the government wobbled on meat price controls. The law lifted them from June to August, then reimposed them—leading to a meat shortage and much public opposition, which prompted Truman to lift them again in October 1946.
The similarities between the policy choices facing Congress in 1945–1946 and those facing it in 2009–2010 are obviously far from exact. Nevertheless, there are some. In both cases a Democratic president was proposing and a Democratic Congress was considering proposals to substantially increase the size and scope of government beyond previous peacetime limits. The Democratic 79th Congress did not come as close to passing such proposals as the more heavily Democratic 111th Congress has done, but the prospect existed then as it does now that a more heavily Democratic Congress might do so.
The second similarity is that the Democrats in 1945–1946 were closely allied with labor unions, which were deeply involved in politics and were avidly seeking more members and more bargaining power. At the end of World War II, labor unions represented 27% of the civilian labor force, up from 7% in 1934. This was primarily the result of government action. The Wagner Act passed in 1935 stimulated the growth of Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions, which through sitdown strikes (which were plainly illegal) and other tactics organized the major auto, steel, and tire manufacturers between 1937 and 1941. Wartime government regulations encouraged unionization in defense industries. Wartime regulations banned strikes, and John L. Lewis’s United Mineworkers was the only union to defy it. But after the war, anticipating inflation, union leaders demanded sharply higher wages and workers went out on strike. The United Steelworkers got a handsome settlement in February 1946, the United Auto Workers (UAW) did so in March, and in April the railroad unions and the United Mineworkers went out on strike. Truman called for a law allowing the drafting of strikers in May but vetoed legislation to restrict unions’ powers in June. The number one strike year in American history turned out to be 1946. Some 4.6 million workers, more than 10% of the work force, were on strike at one point or another during the year, and strikes accounted for 1.4% of total working time—more than double those in the next highest years, which at that point were all in the future.
Go here to The American to read the rest.
Barone ends his article with this observation: The parallels between the political situation in 1946 and 2010 are limited but instructive. Americans once again are faced with proposals that would vastly expand the size and scope of government. And they are faced by proposals to increase the power of labor unions. Public opinion polls show that in 2010, as in 1946, most Americans reject such policies. Republicans in 1946 were prepared to advance policies that turned America away from such policies. The question is whether Republicans in 2010, with the prospect but not the assurance, of winning a majority in the House and perhaps a majority in the Senate, are similarly prepared.
I actually think the Republicans, if the economy stays in the tank, could gain more than 55 House seats. Of course, winning the election in November will be only the start of the challenge for the Republicans. They must perform if they gain control of Congress. A majority of the public clearly are dissatisfied with Democrat rule. The country is experiencing hard times and the public mood will demand performance from the Republicans or 2012 could be as bad for the GOP as 2010 will be good. Business as usual will not cut it in these increasingly turbulent times.