Forget the predictions of disaster for the Republican Party in 2006. This election is over before it starts, and conservatives win. Could Republicans lose control of the House or Senate? Sure. Would that make President Bush’s life miserable for the last two years? Absolutely.
But predictions of disaster for conservatives fly in the face of very solid history, ignoring completely the power of political paradigms.
Elections are about paradigms, not presidents. In 1946 the dominant paradigm was the liberal worldview of tax-and-spend big government, combined with an internationalist foreign policy that today is referred to as American exceptionalism. The liberal political theories behind Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had been seared into the American psyche thanks to the Great Depression and two World Wars.
The GOP ran against President Harry Truman in the 1946 off-year Congressional elections, whipping the war-weary country to a frenzy on the slogan “Had Enough?” Liberals angry at Truman for not being FDR simply stayed home. Republicans won going away, taking back control of both the House and Senate for the first time since 1928. Yet when Truman mounted the rostrum in the now-Republican House chamber on January 6, 1947, to give his State of the Union Address, he bet correctly that the dominant liberal paradigm was still the foundation of the American political mindset. Truman poured forth liberal proposals for anti-trust law, health insurance, child care, hospital construction, veterans and civil rights. Biographer David McCullough notes Truman did not retreat an inch from the domestic programs he had proposed to a Democratic Congress as the sudden successor to FDR in his 1945 message. The paradigm that had won Democrats eight out of nine of the previous national elections was totally intact in Truman’s 1947 speech.
The internationalist agenda that had become inseparably linked to the domestic big government policies of the liberal paradigm not only thrived after the 1946 Democratic defeat, it made GOP converts. On July 25, 1947, Truman’s National Security Act was passed, with significant help from Michigan Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a pre-war isolationist. Vandenberg was now both the President Pro Tempore of the new Republican Senate as well as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Shocked by Pearl Harbor, visiting London during a German attack, the powerful Michigander had become a thorough-going convert to the FDR liberal paradigm of American exceptionalism in foreign affairs. He helped lead the fight for Truman’s legislation to modernize the Pentagon. Among the paradigm’s contributions to current day government was the creation of the Department of Defense, the Air Force, and the National Security Council plus the Central Intelligence Agency. So too did Republicans sign on for the Marshall Plan and aid to Greece in the first skirmish of the Cold War.
This is not to say Republicans were incapable of using their election win to score a political success that went against the dominant paradigm. Ohio’s Senator Robert A. Taft co-authored what became landmark labor relations legislation, the Taft-Hartley Act. When Truman vetoed the bill designed to rein in his union allies, the GOP passed it again over his veto.
Yet Taft-Hartley stands out precisely because it is almost alone as a Republican success in an era when voters were simply unwilling to overturn the existing liberal paradigm. Truman, his approval ratings having dropped a stunning fifty points to 32 percent, not only never retreated from the paradigm he kept turning up the heat on those who fought it. In January of 1948, standing again in front of a frosty GOP Congress, he dumped still more liberal policy proposals on the table. There was a massive housing program, aid to education, health care, support for farmers, an increase in the minimum wage, and more civil rights legislation. When Republicans made a point of ignoring his ideas, Truman pounced, labeling the GOP legislators a “do-nothing Congress.” Then he taunted his own liberal base which had sat out the 1946 election. “You don’t want to do like you did in 1946,” Truman barked during a 1948 campaign whistle-stop. “Two-thirds of you stayed at home in 1946, and look what a Congress we got! That is your fault, that is your fault.” Truman knew his audience and they knew their favorite paradigm. He got his stunning upset victory over Republican Thomas E. Dewey, winning back a Congressional Democratic majority.
Periodic Republican victories over the next thirty-two years not only failed to break the liberal paradigm, they spawned the cheap imitation known as Republican liberalism. Not until the Goldwater insurgency of 1964 did the GOP begin to successfully develop its own conservative paradigm, a winning paradigm still the dominant template of today.
Could Republicans lose in 2006? Yes. Will the conservative paradigm lose? Look at it this way. Rush Limbaugh does not draw an audience of 20 million listeners because America is about to sign on to a new liberal paradigm of high taxes, illegal immigration, appeasement, and judicial activism.