White House vs. Congress

Professor of political science at Williams College, who served as a combat historian in the Pacific daring the war, JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS has been active in Massachusetts and national politics since his college days. He is the author of ROOSEVELT: THE LION AND THE FOX;his new book, JOHN KENNEDY: A POLITICAL PROFILE, which has just been published by Harcourt, Brace, is reviewed in our columns this month.


WE HEAR on all sides that 1960 will be a year of fateful decision, perhaps a critical turning point in American history. I disagree. If we take a hard look at the way our politics actually works, we will see that the main political battle of 1960 has already been decided: liberals will win the presidential contest and conservatives will win the congressional contests. The election is more likely to produce a stalemate over policy than a meaningful decision as to the future course of American politics.

How can this be? Surely we are about to see, beginning in New Hampshire this month, a string of presidential primaries that will throw light on the voting strength of candidates, at least on the Democratic side. Surely the party conventions will choose their standard bearers in July, and the voters will decide between them in November. Will these not be crucial verdicts? Why the answer must be “No" will be evident from a close scrutiny of the way our two parties operate.

We can understand our party system best if we see each major party divided into presidential and congressional wings that are virtually separate parties in themselves. They are separate parties in that each has its own ideology, organization, and leadership. In political outlook, the congressional Republican Party slants sharply to the right, and the congressional Democrats lean almost as far in that direction. The congressional Republicans are the party of the late Senator Robert A. Taft, of today’s Senate and House minority leaders, Everett Dirksen and Charles Halleck. This party operates through the congressional Republican chieftains, the Republican campaign committees in both chambers, and through the congressional committee system, with its rule of seniority. Across the aisles, the congressional Democrats, headed by such men as Lyndon Johnson, Harry Byrd, John McClellan, and Sam Rayburn, operate ideologically somewhat closer to the center. They too have their apparatus of committees and procedures bolstering their power on Capitol Hill.

The two presidential parties operate through very different institutions: the Democratic and Republican national committees, the national conventions, and the political organizations under them. Whichever party wins the presidency wins also the vast political power and machinery of the White House. Both parties have their heroes of old and leaders of today: Willkie. Eisenhower, and Nixon; and Wilson, Roosevelt, and Truman. But the main difference between the presidential and congressional parties is over policy; both presidential parties are more liberal and internationalist than both congressional parties.

We will not have a clear-cut decision over policy this fall because we do not have a clear-cut contest between a liberal party and a conservative party. Instead, we have one arena where conservatives will battle one another and a wholly separate arena where liberal will take on liberal. The elections of 1960 will simply decide what kind of liberals will run the White House and what kind of conservatives will run Congress. It is these divisions within the two major parties that produce the stalemate between them.

We will soon witness, amid considerable fanfare, the beginning of an eight-month struggle between the two presidential parties. The battle between the two congressional parties, as we shall see in a moment, is something very different.

Only the boldest soothsayer would try to predict the outcome next November of the battle between the two presidential parties. But we can predict the nature of the battle; indeed, the nature of the battle has already been largely determined. As I contended in last month’s Atlantic, more than ever before in American history, the two presidential rivals will compete to present the more liberal and internationalist image; they will be competing, that is, to commit the federal government under their leadership to taking up the heavy tasks forced on it by Soviet competition abroad and by years of drift at home. Too, each candidate will be campaigning on the basis of the most liberal platform ever adopted by his party. The substance of these platforms has already been spelled out in the Republicans’ “Decisions for a Better America,”issued last fall, and in the statements of the Democratic Advisory Council.

In a sense, every presidental contest turns more than the last one on issues of liberalism, if only because of the steady flow of voters into urban areas, and hence the ever-increasing need for expanded government. The impetus toward liberal emphasis in presidential contests is also intensified by the mechanics of the electoral college. We hear much about congressional districts being gerrymandered to overrepresent conservatives — which they are, of course; sometimes we forget that our presidential electoral system is gerrymandered in the opposite direction, toward libcralism. For, under that system, with its winnertake-all device, each candidate fights desperately for the large urban states, where the balance of power is supposedly held by organized blocs — labor, Negroes, and so forth — who tend to vote liberal.

But this year, the pressure on the presidential candidates to “talk liberal" and “promise liberally" will stem from more than narrowly political motives. It will stem from a conviction on the part of both nominees, and millions of voters, that the United States has fallen behind dangerously in its military power and in its public services, that the federal government has failed to grapple with key problems such as disabling labor disputes, farm surpluses, and civil rights in the South, that the relentless competition of the Communists demands intensive and sustained action by the federal government, that, in short, the drift of the last decade must end. More than ever before, the presidential candidates will be compelled to speak concretely and candidly about school desegregation, the missile gap, foreign economic policy, housing, minimum wages, labor policy, desegregation, medical care, slums, transportation policy, fiscal questions, the creaking procedures of our national government.

We will see, of course, the usual distractions — the blarney and double talk, the Hollywood extravaganzas, the smoke screens and evasions. But despite all this there will be an unusual seriousness of purpose as the restiveness and hopes of the voters come to a head in millions of little private decisions about the capacity of the presidential rivals to make tough decisions, to plan ahead, to command. Each candidate, in turn, will sense that Americans want from the White House hard leadership that will promise to exact sacrifices from them for the perilous journey through the 1960s. For without hard leadership it will be impossible to accomplish the vital task of building up the public services of the nation.

The real question facing us, then, is not so much who will win next fall’s presidential election — a liberal will win it — but what the winner will do about his liberal commitments once he enters the White House. And what he will do, what he can do, will turn largely on the outcome of that other battle between the congressional Democrats and the congressional Republicans. And the outcome of this battle too can be clearly foreseen.

THE nature of the congressional contests will contrast sharply with that of the presidential. While the national spotlight for the next eight months searches out every word and act of the presidential aspirants, the congressional contests will be decided in obscure skirmishes outside the focus of national attention, largely on the basis of regional issues, often between politicians trying to duck the burning national questions. Local interests, little favors, agreeable personalities, special access to funds will largely determine the outcome of most contests for United States representative and many contests for the Senate.

Why will conservatives win control of Congress no matter how these local races turn out? One reason, of course, is that Congress overrepresents rural and conservative voters because of gerrymandering. Another is that most leaders of the congressional parties — notably the committee chiefs in House and Senate — are sure to hold their seats no matter what happens in national politics, for they represent one-party areas, as in the South and in rural sectors of the North and West, where there is no real competition from the opposition party and precious little within the dominant party. And even if any of these leaders did lose, their places in Congress would be taken in most cases by equally conservative men who had sat their way up the seniority ladder.

Conservatives will win Congress next fall also because of the coalition system in House and Senate. No matter which party gains majorities on Capitol Hill, power gravitates toward the Old Guard leaders in each party, who get along better, ideologically at least, with their counterparts across the aisle than they do with the liberals in their own party. No matter which party wins the presidency this fall, the new President will have to negotiate with — which means making concessions to — the men who run the committees. He will get more help from the elected congressional party leaders, like Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen, but they too will be fettered by the system, for the price of their leadership on the Hill is getting along with the conservatives.

On the day the Senate convened last year, an episode illuminated in one flash the inner processes of our four-party politics. Two powerful men, both of them candidates for President, confronted each other: Vice President Nixon, sitting tensely behind the Senate rostrum, and Majority Leader Johnson, standing casually in the well of the Senate. The immediate question was a procedural one, but the real issue was the Senate’s filibuster rule and, beyond that, the burning question of civil rights.

Nixon was not his usual masterful self. He squirmed in his chair, conferred anxiously with the parliamentarian, stumbled in his speech, got flustered, made a parliamentary error, and was forced by Johnson to admit it. Nor was Johnson ever more happily cock of the walk. Wagging his tinger at Nixon, he lectured him on his parliamentary rulings, held the floor despite Nixon’s attempt to recognize another senator, and made the vice president look like a schoolboy who had failed to do his homework. In the end, the majority leader routed not only Nixon but the liberal bloc of Democrats and Republicans who were trying to liberalize the filibuster rule.

It seemed to be a complete victory for the Texas Democrat. But was it? Certainly Johnson was playing brilliant congressional politics; he showed his mastery not only of Senate procedure but also of his party’s liberal wing, that had supposedly just won a decisive victory in the 1958 elections. But Nixon was playing far better presidential politics. When the episode was over, he was the one man in the whole confused affair, aside from a handful of liberals, who had established a sharp pro-civil-rights image. He had done this by ruling forthrightly that at the opening of a new session the Senate could change its rules to deal with filibusters — an opinion anathema to senatorial conservatives.

CLEARLY, Nixon understands the cardinal fact that Senate leaders finish last in presidential conventions. The picture of the new Nixon that he has projected in recent years can best be understood as a conscious effort to free himself of the deadly embrace of conservative Republicans in the Senate. He has, in short, put himself at the head of the presidential Republican Party. Once upon a time, it may be remembered, he was the darling of the congressional Republicans. After the defeat of Senator Taft by the presidential Republicans backing Eisenhower in 1952, Nixon was chosen to balance the Eisenhower ticket with ballast from the legislative party, just as Senator Bricker had been chosen for this purpose when Dewey won the nomination eight years before. Fully aware that congressional leaders win only vice-presidential nominations. Nixon has moved decisively into the presidential party, and in doing so he has left a vacuum in the leadership of the congressional party.

That vacuum is significant. For a curious and little-noticed thing has happened to the congressional Republican Party: for the first time in decades it is approaching an open presidential convention without a candidate in the Bob Taft tradition of limited government at home and limited commitments abroad. Arthur Vandenberg in 1936, Taft himself in 1940, Bricker in 1944, Taft again in 1948 and 1952 led and symbolized that tradition. Where is the Taft of 1960? Joe Martin is too old. Charles Halleck and Everett Dirksen lack stature, and Nixon has deserted the cause.

In deserting the congressional Republicans, Nixon has also confounded Nelson Rockefeller. A year ago the New York governor was in a superb position to conduct the classic operation of ambitious presidential Republicans; having won an important governorship, he could build a reputation as a forceful executive, forge into the leadership of the presidential Republicans, and capture the presidential nomination. In recent times Alfred Landon and Dewey took this path to the nomination. Rockefeller made the first steps brilliantly, only to find his path to supremacy in the presidential party blocked by the fast-moving vice president, who was staking out his own claim to modern Republicanism. Much has been made of the fact that Nixon had won the support of state leaders in his party, but his espousal of liberal Republicanism was just as important in forcing Rockefeller to quit. Rockefeller found that he could not establish the sharply contrasting image to Nixon that Eisenhower had done to Taft in 1952.

Is the Taft party collapsing? Not at all; it is simply going into its normal temporary eclipse while the presidential party has its day in the nomination fights and in the fall campaign. Normally, the congressional Republicans gamely carry their forlorn fight for the presidential nomination into the second or third ballots of the convention, as they did with Taft, and then grudgingly go along with the Deweys or the Eisenhowers, who win the convention battles. This year, because of Nixon’s defection, they are quitting ahead of time. For example, Halleck, who as Republican leader in the House has the formal credentials for the presidential nomination, is lifting his sights no higher than selection as Nixon’s running mate.

Actually, the Republican congressional party is very much alive, rooted as it is in one-party congressional districts, in the seniority system, and in other arrangements buttressing conservatism on Capitol Hill. In a sense, the congressional party lies beyond the reach of the national electorate. The elections of 1958, it might be argued, would seem to contradict this argument: was not the congressional Republican Party repudiated at the polls? If so, the word never reached the inner councils of the party on Capitol Hill. Note what happened when the Congress convened the following January. House Republican Leader Martin, Taft’s long-time counterpart in the lower chamber, was toppled by his Republican colleagues in an unexpected palace revolution. For a moment, observers thought that the congressional Republicans were being modernized, until it became evident that the conservative Halleck was taking Martin’s place. The trouble with Martin, it seemed, was not that he had been too conservative but that he had not been conservative enough; he had cooperated too much with Democratic and Republican moderates. And in the Senate, to take the place of the defeated William Knowland, the Republicans chose not the liberal Thruston Morton or the moderate Leverett Saltonstall but the conservative Dirksen.

The Old Guard neither dies nor surrenders; it merely sits out the presidential battle and then reoccupies its old redoubts on Capitol Hill.

WHAT about the congressional Democrats? They have in Lyndon Johnson exactly what the Republicans lack, a leader of skill and stature. They have a record, the moderately anti-Eisenhower, middle-of-the-road policies of the last three Congresses. Johnson has been a bit more astute, or flexible, than Taft, for he has broadened his geographical base by working closely with the party’s Western senators, and for a Texas Democrat he has been making some remarkably liberal speeches in his swings around the country. Still, he has kept close to the congressional party, most notably in his, and Sam Rayburn’s, refusal to join the Democratic Advisory Council, the voice of the presidential Democrats.

It may be that Johnson will accomplish what no congressional party leader has achieved since the famous selection of Harding in 1920. But the odds against his winning the presidential nomination this July are heavy. For the price of Johnson’s brilliant achievements in the Senate has been the alienation of the big Northern urban, labor, religious, and ethnic blocs that control conventions as surety as Johnson controls the Senate. The city senators may be in the minority in the upper chamber, with its rural overrepresentation, but the city delegates will more than make up for this weakness when they gather in Los Angeles.

If history repeats itself, Johnson will be defeated by a Democratic governor in the presidential party, just as Garner was vanquished by Roosevelt in 1932 and Richard Russell by Adlai Stevenson in 1952. But history never really repeats itself, and Johnson may be bested by one of his fellow senators, such as John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, or Stuart Symington. Somehow, no Democratic governor has moved into the forefront of the Democratic pack, while Kennedy and others have paid the price that Johnson cannot and will not pay; on issues such as civil rights, labor, education, and minimum wages they have voted the straight New Deal-Fair Deal line.

Some predict that a defeat for the congressional Democrats in Los Angeles this summer would precipitate a Southern walkout and then civil war between the two Democratic wings. The school desegregation issue has so inflamed the South, according to this view, that Southern Democrats could not remain in a party pledged to expand civil rights in every part of the nation. Actually, such a defection is most unlikely. Some Democrats, of course, might take a walk, as they did in 1948 after Truman’s nomination by a convention that had accepted Humphrey’s strong civil rights plank. But the leaders of the congressional Democratic party, for the most part, were not active in the formation of the States’ Rights Party of 1948; many of them opposed that party, which was the vehicle mainly of state politicians. Most of the congressional Democratic leaders from the South boycotted the States’ Rights Party, not out of sentimental attachment to the Democratic Party but out of hardheaded awareness that only by staying nominally Democratic could they retain their power on Capitol Hill to slow down Truman, or Dewey, and the liberal thrust of the presidential parties.

This consideration will be just as compelling next July. The congressional leaders will not forget the example of Taft in 1952. After Taft’s defeat by Eisenhower at the Republican National Convention, some of the Ohioan’s die-hard followers talked of bolting the party. But Taft would have none of it. Instead, he met with Eisenhower in the famous Morningside Heights conference. The outcome of that negotiation, stripped to its essentials, was that Taft would go along with Eisenhower in the election if Eisenhower would pay due regard to Taft’s policies in Washington.

THE man who wins the presidency next fall will seem to have a clear mandate for his platform. During the campaign he will have mobilized millions of voters who rarely become aroused by state or local or even congressional campaigns. In effect, he will have created a wider popular base for the presidential party that he heads. He will enter the White House as commander of a host of partisans and independents committed to him and his program.

But soon the mass basis of his party will melt away. Organizationally, the new President’s supporters will have no place to go. Few of them will find a home in their state or local parties, because these parties are not oriented around national candidates or programs. The vital machinery to sustain political organization — large-scale dues-paying membership backed up by local leadership, headquarters, mailing lists — would be lacking.

This is the fatal gap in our system. The crucial machinery linking President, senators, and representatives to voters concerned about national problems does not exist. In the beginning the new President might not feel the need for such organization. The psychological impact of his victory, the ringing endorsement he wins from a majority of the voters, the natural tendency in Washington to give a new President his lead, the good will of the press and the politicians — all these will make his task easy for a time.

But only for a time. Inevitably, the new President will be confronted by the congressional parties and their conservative leadership. Elected as the result of a different mandate from that which the voters give the President, the congressional party will not share responsibility for his campaign promises to the nation; it will not have his national point of view; it will not feel liable for his heavy burden of commitments to provide national leadership along a wide front. Barring hot war or some other severe crisis, we could expect that the presidential victor this fall, whatever his party, would encounter sharp opposition from his own congressional partisans within a year, or perhaps a few months, of his inauguration. And he would lack the political backing, the organized power throughout the country, to put through the program on which he had been elected to Congress.

In his plight he might take some consolation from the thought that he is no worse off than most of his predecessors, who also had their share of trouble with Congress. But the next President’s problem will be more acute than anything we have yet seen. For his election promises and commitments will be greater than any previous President’s, and unless the 1960s prove to be more benign than we have any right to suppose, international and domestic conditions will produce a never-ending flood of problems. The President will need political support. Where will he find it?

Viewed in these terms, the next two years can be seen as part of a recurring cycle in American national politics. We are currently witnessing the politics of drift, as the presidential candidates in each party struggle for supremacy and Congress puts off major decisions until after the fall elections.

The next phase of the cycle, the politics of decision, will come this summer and fall, as first the presidential parties and then the voters choose a new President pledged to carry out a liberal, internationalist program.

The next phase, the politics of the deed, will start next January and will last several months, as the new President capitalizes on the psychological impetus of his election mandate to put through portions of his program.

The fourth phase, the politics of deadlock, will see the President locked in battle with either or both congressional parties, with his commitments unfulfilled, and in the midst of the new problems demanding federal action.

Has this cycle, beginning in drift and ending in deadlock, become obsolete?

(In his third and final article next month. “Memo to the Next President.”Mr. Burns discusses ways that the new President can knit together the hostile wings of his party, close the “fatal gap.”and enable the people to re-establish national control of their national politics.)