Discussing plans for the Allied invasion of North Africa, President Franklin D. Roosevelt put his hands together as if in prayer and pleaded with Army chief of staff George C. Marshall, "Please make it before the election." Alas for the Democratic party, as David M. Kennedy writes in Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, "On Election Day, November 3, 1942…the transports bearing American troops to North Africa were still at sea." The result: "Democrats took a shellacking"—losing forty-seven seats in the House and seven in the Senate.
In the five wartime congressional elections since 1860, the "war party"—the party of the president—has always taken a shellacking, averaging a loss of thirty-six House and five Senate seats. This year, the GOP is fighting that rooted electoral trend; more than the Mark Foley scandal, more even than Republican corruption in the era of Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay, Bob Ney, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, Dennis Hastert, and Curt Weldon, if the Republicans lose on November 7, Iraq will be why. If, as seems increasingly unlikely, the GOP hangs on to the House in the face of public opinion about the war, as well as the Democrats’ twenty-three point lead on the "generic ballot" question (which party do you want to lead the next Congress?), then incumbency, gerrymandering, and money will have aborted the self-correcting mechanism of democracy.
On C-SPAN’s invaluable Washington Journal, patriotic callers frequently despair that Americans won’t rally behind their president in a time of war. But Americans don’t do that. They don’t suspend politics "for the duration." They punish the war party for war—for getting the country into it, for its objectives, conduct, duration, inconveniences, and cost.
In 1862, the Democrats ran against the Lincoln administration’s violation of civil liberties (though the Constitution permits the suspension of habeas corpus rights during "rebellion"), against the failure of Lincoln’s generals, above all against the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln issued after the equivocal northern victory at Antietam that September. The Democrats had no stomach for a war against slavery. A campaign slogan proposed by an Ohio Democrat mirrors their sentiments: "The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was, and the Niggers where they are." Democrats in Washington were not palpably unsympathetic to the treasonous wing of their party in Richmond, yet this Copperhead party won thirty-four House seats, administering what a contemporary called "a most serious and severe reproof" to Lincoln’s Republicans and the Allied Union Party.