On the fourth of March Mr. Harding’s administration passes its second year anniversary—an occasion which invites some comments in mid-term. Is the administration measuring up to what might reasonably have been expected? Is the country getting what it bargained for?
Now it may seem unfair, on the face of things to attempt any appraisal of an administration’s faults or merits until it has exhausted its four years of opportunity. And, in a sense, it is unfair: no ruler of men can be dispassionately judged until after he has ceased to be a ruler, or, indeed, for many years thereafter. Yet the fact remains that in remarkably few instances has any presidential administration given good cause for the revision of fair judgments passed upon it at mid-term. Two years are ample to determine its pace and direction. Some presidents have done better, with experience; and some have done worse; very few have done differently.
In any case, the American practice of holding a Congressional election midway between two presidential campaigns may be said to provide an irresistible temptation for taking a political inventory, whether the time be opportune or not. The results of this off-year election are bound to be construed, by the great bodies of unreflective opinion at home and abroad, as an endorsement, or a repudiation of the party in power. The political history of the United States during the past forty years seems to indicate, moreover, that they may rightly be so interpreted. Never during these four decades has the party in power, having lost the mid-term Congressional elections, failed to lose the presidency two years later. And only once during this period has the dominant party carried the House in the off-year election and failed in the next presidential campaign.
If we view the results of last November’s Congressional campaign in the light of the precedents, therefore, it will appear that the Republicans have no reason for being unduly disheartened. But that is not the light in which results have been interpreted, and are still being interpreted, through the land. The marked shrinkage in the Republican Congressional majorities has been almost everywhere taken to imply that the people are becoming impatient with the inaction of Congress, are losing faith in Mr. Harding, and are getting ready to cast the Republican party into outer darkness. This may be a correct deduction from the November returns; there is no certain way of determining, at this stage, whether it is or not. But it is, at any rate, not the only possible interpretation, nor, indeed, the most reasonable one.
Recall for a moment what happened in 1920. Mr. Harding was elected by a popular plurality of about seven million votes; his supporters in both Houses of Congress were swept into the winning column as by a tidal wave. This, however, was not the doing of the Republican Party alone: it was the work of the most variegated host that ever ranged itself upon a single side at any American election. Included ad hoc in the Republican ranks were millions of men and women who were not Republicans by tradition, and who had no honest sympathy with the principles of Republicanism. Their allegiance to the party was nominal only, and no one but the veriest tyro in politics should have imagined that it would endure for any length of time. One bond, and only one, held this vast aggregation together: namely, a disinclination to endorse the foreign and domestic policies of the Wilson Administration. So it was beyond peradventure that disintegration would set in, and that right speedily. He was a poor prophet who could not have foreseen a great recession in the strength of this titular Republicanism by the time the next Congressional elections should arrive.
But whether the shrinkage proved to be greater than might fairly have been anticipated, and whether it cut more deeply into the Republican ranks than a mere restoration of the old party lines would have warranted—these are questions which leave some room for difference of opinion. The casualties were heavy, more so than the Republican leaders had reckoned upon. But they involved no loss of control over either House. Therein the Harding Administration fared better than that of Arthur in 1882, Harrison in 1890, Cleveland in 1894, Taft in 1910, and Wilson in 1918. This is a phase of the situation which has had little attention in the political sermons and editorials of the past five months. Desertions by the million have taken place from the ranks of those who placed the present Administration in power; but over the greater part of the country there is no indication that this departure of the guerrillas who fought with the Republicans in 1920 has made the party appreciably weaker than it has been on many previous occasions.
When President Harding called for a return to 'normalcy.' he presumably did not have in mind the deflation of his own party to its normal strength. But that was a necessary implication, was it not? The country is normally Republican, but not by any such margin as was reflected at the elections of 1920. It may well be doubted whether any programme, however wisely framed, or any amount of leadership, however skillfully exercised, would have availed to maintain the hegemony disclosed on that occasion. Inevitably it could not be done by pursuing the laissez-faire policy which Mr. Harding outlined in his inaugural address. The feat of holding the distended ranks of the Party together could be accomplished, if at all, only by aggressive leadership of a type which the President was equipped neither by temperament nor by training to give.
Rarely, indeed, has there been greater need for vigorous political leadership in the United Status than during the past two years. This is not because the national problems have been more difficult of solution, or the tasks confronting the nation more stupendous, than at various other periods in American history; but because the public mind has been so badly bewildered. The issues have been ambiguous, confused, obscured. There has been no approach to a consensus on any subject, even within the ranks of the political parties themselves. The country has been in a mood of reaction, skepticism, negation. It has been in a disillusioned, restive, diacritical frame of mind. Leadership of an authoritative and dominating sort has been sorely needed during the past two years to rouse the electorate to an attitude of positivism on public questions. Getting a new orientation is a difficult business, whether for an individual or for a whole nation; there is bound to be much floundering in the process. Congress has merely shown itself a faithful mirror of this flux and chaos in the public sentiment; it has known its own mind no better than the people who elected it. Left to its own resources, without guidance or direction, there is no reason why the Sixty-Seventh Congress of the United States should have done otherwise than grow restive in its desire to do something, yet knowing not what to do.
The larger a Congressional majority, the more urgently is firm leadership desirable. An overwhelming victory at the polls is certain to make a political party over-confident; over-confidence begets indolence; then the days and weeks flit by with nothing done. A majority that is not kept on its mettle by the relentless pressure of a strong opposition becomes remiss, complacent, and ill disciplined. The history of legislatures affords innumerable examples of the truism that, in politics as in war, the trammels of discipline are more readily loosened by victory than by defeat. Hence the need for a dominating will in the councils of a political party is most imperative on the morrow of a landslide such as took place in this country at the last presidential election. This is, or ought to be, a self-evident proposition, a commonplace of polities.