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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Realignments to Remember

In American political history, major electoral realignments typically happen against the backdrop of at least one of the following conditions: an unpopular war, a recession or depression, reckless fiscal policies or bigger-than-usual scandals in Washington. Victory for the party on the outs in the balloting early next month may be truly seismic because all four conditions plague the party in charge.

Democrats scored huge gains in the 1974 elections in the aftermath of Watergate. They took both houses of Congress from the Republicans in the depression year of 1932. Republicans swept to power in 1994 largely on fiscal issues, just as they had done in 1920 amid disenchantment with Woodrow Wilson’s tax-and-spend administration.

Predictions for the GOP in the 2010 mid-terms range from a pick-up of 35 to 50 seats. Even a figure at the lower end of that range would be regarded by pundits as large, but it pales in contrast to two massive realignments within the same decade, barely a hundred years ago.

The 1894 election was a whopper for party turnover. In a Congress with a hundred fewer seats than today’s, the incumbent Democrats lost 125 and the Republicans gained 130. The one issue on everybody’s mind that year was depression, heralded a year and a half earlier by the Panic of 1893. The party of President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat in the middle of his second (and nonconsecutive) term, took the heat for sky-high unemployment.

But just four years earlier, the Democrats nearly wiped the slate clean of Republicans. When the dust settled in the November 1890 mid-terms, Democrats had won an astonishing 235 seats in the House, leaving the Republicans with just 88. What was the number one issue of that campaign? Spending—reckless, feckless spending.

Grover Cleveland’s first term (1885-89) featured many battles with congressional Republicans over fiscal issues. A parsimonious Presbyterian who took his constitutional duties seriously, Cleveland vetoed more than twice as many bills as all of his 21 predecessors combined—414 vetoes in a single four-year term. “Though the people support the government,” he opined in a rejection of a measure to aid drought-afflicted farmers in Texas, “the government should not support the people.”

In his 1888 re-election bid, Cleveland won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College to Republican Benjamin Harrison. With a small GOP majority in the Congress, and a passive president who largely deferred to his party’s congressional leadership, the spenders took the country on a grand ride. What Democrat Grover Cleveland had vetoed, the iron-fisted Speaker of the House, Maine’s Thomas B. “Czar” Reed, rammed through. The big spenders threw so much money at public works, defense and military pensions that a new political insult was coined, the “Billion Dollar Congress.” It was the first time in American history that Congress spent a billion dollars in a single two-year session.

The first half of the Harrison administration saw the Republicans not only breaking records for spending, but taking the country off the deep end on other fiscal matters as well. They squandered a budget surplus, passed the highest tariffs to date and put the federal government in the position of buying up nearly the entire annual output of the country’s silver mines for twice what the metal was worth. They also authorized the printing of a new paper money to help pay for it all. In massive numbers, voters repudiated the Billion Dollar Congress on November 4, 1890.

Here we are, 12 decades later, and the mood in the country is anything but tranquil. The first three of the four re-aligning conditions cited above are arguably in place. If you have doubts about the fourth (major scandal), think of how average Americans see the last 18 months of wasteful spending and bailouts of the politically well-connected. Some polls suggest that most people would think “scandalous” to be a rather charitable adjective.

Realignment elections demonstrate that Americans don’t much care for endless wars in faraway places, a sagging economy, spending and taxing binges, or politicians otherwise behaving badly. They’ve been known to turn a party out of power for perceiving it guilty of just one of those sins. If voters on November 2 see the Democrats as presiding over all four, a new benchmark in political history may be set.

Given how terribly disappointing the Republicans proved to be after they won control of Congress in 1994, how much difference a GOP tsunami this November will make in the years to come is anybody’s guess.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York and Atlanta, Georgia.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is