Although political scientists and political commentators have been waiting for a major partisan realignment since the 1960s, they have for the most part been disappointed. Any long-term effects of Nixon’s 1972 landslide were washed away by Watergate. Reagan surely fared better, but by the end of Reagan’s eight years, Congress and most state governments remained under the control of the Democrats. As late as 1993, anyone speaking of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives would have been considered
ridiculous by most political observers.
Even on the eve of the 1994 elections, one had the impression that the Republican rhetoric about majority status was based more on hype than hope. By raising the possibility of a Republican majority, party leaders were trying to motivate their constituency and generate contributions, but how many really believed that the rhetoric would turn into reality?
Of course, the Democrats, along with much of the news media, had already prepared the way for significant Democratic losses. They knew their President was unpopular, and they constantly reminded people that the “in” party traditionally lost 20 or more seats in off-year elections. Also, they complained that there was an anti-incumbent mood, and because there were more Democratic incumbents, their party was bound to suffer more losses. In short, the spin was already in motion for a 30- or 35-seat loss. But even the Democratic spin doctors had difficulty fashioning a rhetorical bandage to cover a 55-seat loss.
Just how bad is this defeat for the Democrats, and why did it happen now? To understand the significance of the defeat, it is first necessary to clear away some of the rhetorical debris scattered about by the Democrats before the election. First, even some of the most obtuse Democrats have noticed the fact that no Republican incumbent lost in the House, in the Senate, or in a gubernatorial race. The electorate was angry, but they had a clear target for their anger. If cruise missiles were as accurate as the 1994 electorate, we could have taken out Saddam Hussein without injuring a single other person.
As for the “normal” off-year losses, history tells us that the average “off”-year loss in a President’s first term is 14 seats. Typically “off”-year losses are correlated with “on”-year gains. For example, Reagan lost 24 House seats in 1982, but he had gained 35 seats when he was elected in 1980. Johnson lost 47 seats in 1966, but he had gained 37 in the 1964 election. Similarly FDR’s big losses came only after tremendous gains, as did the Republican loss of 74 seats in 1922 which followed the 61-seat gain in 1920.
Clinton’s 1994 losses, however, do not follow substantial “on”-year gains. Clinton accomplished what few first term Presidents have done: he lost 18 House seats while winning the Presidency. The only other President in this century to lose seats in the year that he captured the White House from the opposition was John Kennedy in 1960, and that loss followed a 51-seat gain by the Democrats in 1958. On the other hand, Presidents who have had only modest gains in on-year elections have typically suffered only modest losses in the off-year race. Carter lost only 14 seats in 1978 after gaining 1 in 1976. Nixon lost only 11 in 1970 after gaining 5 in 1968, and Kennedy lost only 3 in 1962 after his 21- seat loss in 1960. In this context, anything over 15 seats would have been a substantial loss.
But as we have noted, the spin became irrelevant, because the extent of the loss was so great. Clinton lost more seats than Ford in the wake of Watergate, more than Johnson during the Vietnam War, more than Herbert Hoover in 1930, more than any President two years after his initial election since William Howard Taft lost 56 seats in 1910.
What is even more remarkable is that this tremendous loss occurred in the absence of a crisis. There has been no Watergate or no Depression to dislodge voters from their traditional party loyalties. In fact it was the absence of such a crisis that explains why Reagan and the Republicans had failed to make deeper inroads into the Democratic majorities at the Congressional and state level. American voters are institutionally conservative; they are very reluctant to change party loyalties. It is one thing to vote for an occasional Republican Presidential candidate, it is quite another to become a Republican and vote Republican at the state and local level after years of loyalty to the Democratic Party.
One of the great ironies of twentieth-century American politics is that FDR’s New Deal coalition was anchored by southern Democrats who continued to vote Democratic because of the Civil War. (It is at best disingenuous for liberal Democrats to complain about racist influence at the fringe of the New Right, when the core constituency of the New Deal was more hostile to genuine civil rights legislation than any element in the Republican party today.) Only in the 1960s did southern Democrats start to vote for the President on the basis of their political ideology, rather than traditional loyalties. And only gradually did these ideological differences begin to erode the traditional loyalties below the level of Presidential politics. That is only gradually, until November 1994.
Why now, if not in 1968, 1980 or 1984? In 1968 Nixon’s victory was a reaction to the cultural revolution of the sixties. People were not rejecting the New Deal Democratic Party, they were reacting against what they saw as the perversion of that party. Not only did Nixon avoid any direct attack on the premises of the New Deal, he actually expanded funding for many of Johnson’s Great Society programs.
Reagan went further than Nixon by restoring a sense of America’s place in the world, as well as in giving voice to the sentiment that there were limits on how much individuals were willing to pay for a “great society.” Reagan stopped the growth of new programs based on old premises, but he ultimately did not provide a new framework for governing.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that people do not care about the underlying premises of government action. But I believe that 1994 was different precisely because the voters had come to see that it was not enough to stop the growth of the New Deal and Great Society agendas. Nor was it enough merely to change Presidents. Those approaches had been tried and failed. It was time to move on.
It is true that the two most often discussed issues in 1994, crime and taxes, remind us of the cultural theme of 1968 and the tax-cut theme of 1980. But beneath the issues of crime and taxes was the more heartfelt concern that government is not working. There is something fundamentally wrong with our conception of what government can do and how it should do it. The Reagan revolution had begun to raise these questions, but in the final analysis even after Reagan many of the assumptions of the New Deal and Great Society remained unchallenged. As the failures of government have become ever more obvious, however, the voters have shown they are ready to challenge those assumptions. The accumulated frustration with government created the desire for more dramatic change in 1994, and there was no greater symbol of politics as usual than the decades of Democratic dominance in the House.
Many commentators are reminding us that what we have witnessed is not so much a Republican victory as a Republican opportunity, and, they are correct. But that takes nothing away from the dramatic event that has taken place. Political realignment starts by kicking out the old, even before we are sure what the new will bring. However, Republicans should not be too complacent. They must remember that the New Deal Democratic Party came to dominate American politics largely because the Republicans’ anti-government philosophy made them increasingly irrelevant during the crises of Depression and World War. A realignment has begun, but for it to be complete the Republicans must develop a governing philosophy as powerful as that of the New Deal. Surely that philosophy will call for a greater recognition of the limits of what government can and should do. But it must, nonetheless, be a philosophy for a governing party, and not one that is better suited to a loyal opposition.
David Nichols is Associate Professor of Political Science at Montclair State College, New Jersey.