Politics & Prose October 2006

War and the American Voter

In the five wartime congressional elections since 1860, the "war party" has always taken a shellacking

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.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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