January 7th, 2017

Congress, Republicans, and history: can they play offense?

Here’s a comment from “SteveH” in August of 2015, about the future political prospects of the GOP. I noted it down at the time and planned to discuss it in a post, a post that I drafted but never got around to publishing.

Here’s the quote:

“Now we get to wait with bated breath to see if a republican can get elected. So we can recall how they suck worse on offense than they do on defense.

And here’s the response I drafted back in August of 2015, much of which I reproduce now with very little editing.

I believe the prognosis for the future depends on how you define “offense.” I contend that, although the GOP inspires no particular trust, and the current leadership of Boehner and McConnell inspires even less than that, nevertheless it is of the utmost importance that we elect a strong conservative president and give him/her the GOP legislature by which to accomplish the job.

And then we’ll see about “offense.”

I define real “offense” this way: having control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. Without that, there are a million ways for Democrats in power to block a minority GOP party agenda. The minority party is limited to blocking the majority’s agenda, and even that is predicated on continual use of the filibuster to prevent cloture (and by the way, the Republicans under Obama blocked quite a bit of his legislation). I’ve already written about these issues (and the idea of closing down the government by cutting funding) many many times (see this, for example).

Right now I want to talk about something else. I want to talk about something in history that is often forgotten. If you study Congressional history in terms of party control (see this important chart), you will note that, ever since Coolidge and Hoover, Republicans have only had that “offense” opportunity (control of the presidency and both houses) twice. The first time (and then they barely had control) was in 1953-1955 under Eisenhower. That was a long long time ago, I think you would agree, and Eisenhower wasn’t exactly a conservative. Also, the reason I wrote “barely” is that the GOP’s “control” of the Senate balanced on a razor’s edge, with 48 Republicans to 47 Democrats plus one Independent (the Independent being Wayne Morse, who basically was no Republican).

The second time was much more recently, and it’s the one most present-day readers remember: under George W. Bush, and in particular the years 2005-2007. He also had majorities in 2003-2005, but a much weaker one (especially in the Senate), so weak it could be undermined by just a couple of senatorial RINOs. Those Bush years were also dominated by the war in Iraq, and unfortunately Republicans did not capitalize on their very rare moment of being in control and thus able to play “offense.”

That rankles, I know, and it does with me as well.

But I think it’s wrong to pretend there’s some long history of Republicans being in control and not taking advantage of it. I’ve just recounted the sum total of times Republicans have been in control of Congress and the presidency since the days of Hoover. What’s more, it’s actually the Democrats who’ve been in control of both far far more often ever since FDR, and therefore able to play real “offense” in the sense I’m talking about.

In addition, many times that the Democrats have held presidency and Congress, their majorities in both houses have been overwhelming, featuring numbers that Republicans haven’t rivaled since before FDR and have not come close to rivaling after (even during the Bush years when they did have control for a few years). All of the presidents in my lifetime whose party has held both houses at any time during their presidency (other than the aforementioned George W. Bush and briefly and weakly Eisenhower) were Democrats. All the ones who had very strong majorities for much of the time were Democrats as well. Besides FDR, we have Truman, JFK, LBJ, Carter, and early Clinton,. Actually, Clinton was the only post-FDR Democratic president who had to face a divided Congress for a substantial (at least half) portion of his presidency. The only one.

Check out the numbers; it’s quite astounding how large the Democratic margins in Congress were during the last two-thirds of the 20th Century. As an example, from 1935-1937 the Senate was about 72% Democratic and the House 74% under FDR, and those margins increased in 1937-1939 to 78% and 76%. Hard to see what Republicans could have done against that. During 1945-1947, Truman’s Congress was very close to 60% Democrat in the Senate and about 56% Democrat in the House (for the next two years he had to deal with a Republican Congress, however). JFK? 64% of the Senate was Democratic during his first two years, and that margin increased to 67% for the next two years (some of which, of course, became the LBJ years). At the same time, the House was 60% and 59% Democratic. The margins increased still again during LBJ’s first elected term, 1965-1967, to about 68% in both branches of Congress.

In contrast, Nixon (and then Ford) had to deal with an enormous Democratic majority of around 58% for both branches (although the margins reduced somewhat during the later years of his/their terms) the whole time he was in office. Carter was initially given a 61% lead in the Senate and almost 67% of the House, later reduced to a still-strong 57%/64%.

I’m doing all this math very quickly, so you might find errors, but that’s what I get when I try to figure it out.

Study it all you want, but you won’t find margins anything like that—not even remotely like that—for any Republican president since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Harding, and Coolidge. And Coolidge only had 53% of the Senate and approximately 52% of the House at first, which went up a bit in the next election before it went down in the subsequent one, with the Senate Republican lead in the Senate fading to one vote. With Hoover, the Senate went back up to 58% GOP (then down again to a one-vote margin during the last two years of his term), while the House was 61% Republican and then down to a tie during those last two years.

So, that was the situation for Republicans controlling the presidency and Congress during the 20th Century, except for the aforementioned brief times during the Eisenhower years when they barely controlled Congress. And then in the 21st Century, more slight control for the GOP under Bush.

What a contrast! For nearly a hundred years Congress has mostly been in control of Democrats, often very strongly in control, and that’s also been when there’s a Democratic president. Republican control has been weak and extremely sporadic, and therefore most Republican presidents have faced an oppositional Congress.

That’s was pretty much it for the original post. Now, of course, we have another of those rare times when Republicans control Congress and the presidency—although control of Congress is nowhere near as strong as what the Democrats have enjoyed many many times (including, by the way, the first two years of Obama’s first term, during which he had close to 60 votes in the Senate and 59% of the House, as well—which is why Democrats were so eager to push through legislation such as Obamacare during those two years, and which led to the backlash election of 2010).

And that’s why I was so elated this past election night when I realized that the Republicans had retained control of the Senate (and the House, which hadn’t really been in dispute) to go along with their presidency. It’s a rare rare moment in history.

When I was writing the first draft of this post back in August 2015 I had added the following:

One of the many sad things about the 2016 campaign is that this is probably the first time since Coolidge or Hoover that Republicans have a chance of obtaining a strong majority in both houses and the presidency as well. And yet many so-called conservatives seem determined to throw it away in their ire at the GOP in Congress and the myth that the GOP can’t play offense. Yet, the only real evidence of that is a few years during Bush’s presidency.

I’m certainly willing to give them another chance. I don’t have any illusions about Boehner and McConnell, but with the leadership of a strong conservative president plus control of both houses, I think a great deal can be accomplished and quite a bit actually would be accomplished. I want a chance to find out.

Well, we’ve been though a lot since then, haven’t we? For a while I thought we’d thrown away the chance to have a Republican president and Senate at all. Then I thought we’d thrown away the chance to have a “strong conservative president.” Now I am entertaining the idea that—although the lead in Congress isn’t really what I’d call enormous (52% and 55% aren’t exactly FDR- or JFK- or LBJ-type numbers)—’tis enough, ’twill serve (perhaps). And although Trump never looked especially conservative while campaigning, his post-election choices have been quite conservative indeed.

So maybe I’ll get my chance to find out. And so will you.

That would be astounding. Let’s hope they use that power wisely.

13 Responses to “Congress, Republicans, and history: can they play offense?”

  1. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    I too hope they use this opportunity wisely. It’ll be a pleasant surprise if they do. The GOP’s new proposed budget, which would add 8.8 TRILLION $$$$$ to the debt over the next 10 yrs. argues otherwise.

    Business as usual (example: attaching repeal of Obamacare to that obscene budget bill) and passive-aggressive obstruction on any issue they oppose (illegal immigration) is what I expect.

  2. blert Says:

    Nuking the filibuster is THE decisive change.

    It’s what stopped W in his tracks.

    Trump is in a UNIQUE position as a Republican president because of Reid’s nuking.

  3. Physicsguy Says:

    I think one big difference between now and 30 to 40 years ago is that back then the Dems actually cared about the country, while today they seem to want it’s destruction in favor of their utopian vision. While they had majorities I don’t recall them doing what they did with obamacare.

  4. Exeter mom Says:

    After W’s reelection he made the fateful decision to work on entitlement reform, I.e. Social security, on the theory that he had political capital and was going to spend it on a great domestic issue. It was a colossal failure. Very much matters how you use your capital.

    First hundred days will set the tone. Let’s see what the Donald can do. He has his supporters, but also angry opponents, and that anger is not going to go away. Twill be interesting to watch.

  5. Big Maq Says:

    This election cycle has presented an opportunity, but that opportunity has an expiry date on it.

    Strategically, the GOP Congress needs to flood the first 100 days with the legislation they’ve long been looking to implement, while trump still “needs” them, and before the dems reorganize themselves.
    .

    Re: trump’s appointments… remains to be seen how much leeway he gives them, or if he undermines them via contrary tweets and phone in interviews.

    In this regard, pence could be the most consequential VP, or the least.
    .

    We’ll see, over the first 100 days how all this is likely to pan out.

  6. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Out in the boonies, the rest of the non-left population may be encouraged to speak up, having had an example of how to tell the PC folks they don’t count any longer and can’t censor by shame. Nobody’s buying.

  7. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    It is the narcissism of the Democrats that cause them to call narrow Republican majorities “control” of House, Senate, or SCOTUS, but not to use that term for themselves even at much higher majorities. 60% is what they are due, you see. It’s where the centerpoint should be. It’s normal. If they got used to that then 70% would be normal, of course, and they would complain about the unfairness of not having that. (That’s how dictators eventually get up to expecting 99-100% of the vote, BTW. It happens gradually.)

    The Republicans have not controlled the Congress in a real sense for almost a hundred years, and I don’t just mean the presence of some RINO’s.

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    Assistant Village Idiot:

    But don’t you think a lot of people on the right are not aware of the extreme difference in the history of right and left in Congress? I think that’s one of the reasons there is so much complaining about how wimpy the GOP is and how little the conservative agenda has been advanced.

    I think if you were to quiz people on the right, an awful lot of folks would be very very surprised at how few times the GOP has even had a bare majority in addition to the presidency, and how many times the Democrats have had enormous majorities and the presidency.

  9. Tatterdemalian Says:

    Republicans will always suck on offense. Fighters like Trump are the exception, not the rule.

    It’s because people may make plans based on what they know, but they only can act on what they believe in. And a plan without action is as useful as a wagon without wheels.

  10. Artfsldgr Says:

    The final warp and woof of Moscow’s strategic tapestry is now coming into view. As John Dziak pointed out in his essay, “Soviet Deception: The Organizational and Operational Tradition,” the key Russian strategic concepts include: Proniknovenniye (Penetration), Provokatsiya (Provocation), Fabrikatsiya (Fabrication), Diversiya (Diversion), agent po vliyaniyu/agent vliyaniye (agent of influence), Dezinformatsiya (Disinformation), Kombinatsiya (Combination).

    The weave is thus translated if we juxtapose the following proper and improper nouns: Barack Obama (Proniknovenniye), Aleppo, Syria (Provokatsiya), Donald Trump/Russian stooge (Fabrikatsiya), Russian hackers (Diversiya), Hillary Clinton (agent po vliyaniyu/agent vliyaniye), CNN/New York Times/Washington Post, et alia (Dezinformatsiya), the result of the 2016 presidential election in all the above (Kombinatsiya).

    The weave itself may be grasped with reference to scandal and counter-scandal. But do not mistake the tertiary diversiya for the primary provokatsiya. Next, interject the prospect of nuclear war into the mix. Friday’s ABC News headline says, Russian television Warns of Nuclear War Amid US Tensions. The Sunday Express says, Nuclear war ‘IMMINENT’ as Russia tells citizens to find out where the closest bunkers are. A few days ago the governor of St. Petersburg announced a possible bread ration of 300 grams per person for 20 days (while sheltered underground) in the event of war with America.

    Can we take any of this seriously? – JJR (john jay ray)

  11. TommyJay Says:

    Count me in the abysmal offense camp. Look at the T. Roosevelt/Progressive Party platform. It was wildly left at the time. Now we have it all and more.

    More recently, we had GOP speakers Newt Gingrich, Denny Hastert, and John Boehner. Newt was great (IMHO) but I recall that my liberal friends at the time were livid in their hatred of him. In short, the agit-prop media campaign against him worked like a charm.

    Hastert was the “accidental” speaker because the Bob Livingston got caught in an extramarital affair. BL may have been perfectly fine as a politician, but he resigned. And for many years nothing got done under Hastert. Apparently, he was too busy paying off the victim of his past pederasty to effectively run a GOP house.

    And remember one of Livingston’s house colleagues by the name of Billy Tauzin. Hillarycare was killed in the cradle because the healthcare industry decided to run a big ad campaign (Harry & Louise ads) against it. But with Obamacare, healthcare lobbyist Billy Tauzin told all his clients, “Either help choose what’s on the (Obamacare) menu, or you will be ON the menu.” Thanks Billy! As Stalin said, “The capitalists will sell us the rope we use to hang them.”

    So now in the markets we see a widespread slump in bricks and mortar retailers. Resturants, apparel, and malls in general are going down. Everyone blames Amazon, which is substantially true; but they overlook the massive economic blight caused by Obamacare. Small business labor costs have gone way up, but more importantly most disposable income has been sucked out of middle class bank accounts.

  12. TommyJay Says:

    On a related point, will someone (Neo?) explain to us how and why the Dems can pass Obamacare with 50+VP senate votes, and Republicans say they need a filibuster proof majority to pass a replacement of it?? Is it correct that Obamacare was a reconciliation bill and that a separate Republican replacement bill can’t be one for some reason?

    Isn’t this type of thing one of the cruxes of the argument that Dems get things done, and Republicans are ineffectual?

    I recall that Republicans were too lazy to fight the 16th Amendment (income tax) in congress, so they passed it through both houses believing that the states would never ratify it. Ha!

  13. neo-neocon Says:

    Tommy Jay:

    I explained it already in this comment.

    It’s a somewhat technical issue, but not so very hard to understand.

    The GOP, by the way, have already passed a repeal of Obamacare through reconciliation (see this post).

    The Republicans are understandably reluctant to jettison the filibuster entirely, which is what they would need to do to replace (not repeal, but replace) Obamacare because that would require passage of a new bill, not a reconciliation bill. But they might do it anyway.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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