The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Washington

on the World Today

A WHILE back President Kennedy drew upon his nautical past to say that the American people will have a choice this November of whether “to anchor down or to sail.” This is the way Kennedy would like the voters to view the choice, on the assumption that most people are against standing still. But indications from the primaries this year and from reports of political scouts in various parts of the nation suggest that it is not going to be that simple for the Democratic Party.

There are three categories of elections — the House, where all members are up for reelection; the Senate, where 38 seats are at stake; the governorships, where 35 are to be filled — and each presents a different problem for Kennedy and his party. Midterm elections bring out fewer voters than do elections in presidential years, and the issues on which they are won or lost tend to be more localized and fragmentized than when the top national office is at stake. Nonetheless, the general public attitude toward an Administration in power, the feeling as to whether it is or is not doing its job well, does affect the outcome of voting not only for Senate and House but also for the governorships.

The President has said that he will concentrate his politicking “where there will be a very clear choice” between Democrats who back his Administration and Republicans who oppose it. But he has acknowledged the historical fact that White House intervention has never proved very profitable. Wilson suffered a disastrous defeat on the League of Nations issue. F.D.R., despite a contrary view in many minds, never really tried, except to purge a few Democrats he found objectionable, and he won in only one case. Eisenhower did try, but the results were meager, at best. Still, Kennedy is not the type to shy away because of the record, and Democratic candidates have been scrambling to get him into their states or districts because they believe that he will pep up the party workers.

Of the three races this fall, the Senate is the easiest for the Democrats. Only a third of the scats (plus a few others vacant because of death or resignation) are up this fall, and it is impossible for the Republicans to capture control of the Senate, it is possible for them to cut into the generally liberal and pro-Kennedy nature of the Senate, however. On the other hand, the Democrats think they can increase their majority with as many as three more pro-Kennedy partisans replacing Republicans. A good possibility, for instance, is Kentucky, where Senator Thruston Morton is opposed by Lieutenant Governor Wilson Wyatt. Here is a case where the Kennedy plan for medicare is likely to give the voters a clear-cut choice. In Connecticut, Democrats are counting on former Cabinet member Abraham Ribicoff to replace retiring Republican Prescott Bush. The Republicans are optimistic about their chances for victory in Colorado and Idaho, and perhaps in Pennsylvania, and do not concede the Connecticut seat.

The decisive seats in the House

The real congressional struggle involves the House. The Republicans claim publicly that they can pick up the 45 seats or so it would take to win control and make conservative Charles Halleck of Indiana the new Speaker. Privately, however, their hopes are more modest, for a gain of between 10 and 20. But such a gain would be enough to make Halleck all but the de facto leader of the House, for he has skillfully blended his own forces with the thirty to fifty Southern Democrats who on occasion desert the Administration. Such a GOP gain this November would kill the prospects for most of the New Frontier domestic legislation. From Kennedy’s viewpoint, a Democratic House gain of 5 to 10 seats would, as the President has said, “change the whole opinion in the House” and mean passage of many a bill which has had to be trimmed or shelved in the current Congress. The psychological effect of any Democratic gain would be considerable, both parties agree.

But history is against any such accomplishment. Only once in this century has the party controlling the presidency made a midterm House gain. That was in 1934, at the height of the New Deal, when the Democrats added 9 seats. Over the years party control in the House has been determined by the outcome in about 100 seats; the others generally have remained safely Democratic or safely Republican. It is in this middle group of seats, most of them won by a margin of 5 percent or less, that this fall’s battle will be concentrated.

What about the new districts?

This year there is a new complicating factor in the redistricting after the decennial census. A number of Democratic seats in the South, long safe for the party, are being eliminated, but their occupants more often than not have been antiKennedy. Republican conservatives may make further inroads in the South, but the picture is not yet clear. On the other hand, the Democrats hope to add two or three more or less pro-Kennedy congressmen in Florida, which will have 4 additional seats next year. However, the Republicans think Florida offers a good chance to add to their single House member from that state.

The two biggest redistricting jobs were in New York, which lost 2 seats, and California, which gained 8. In New York a Republican legislature with a Republican governor’s approval did its best to so redesign the districts as to cost the Democrats from 3 to 6 seats. In California, Democrats in the legislature and the governorship rearranged the districts so as to assure themselves, they hope, of from 6 to 11 more members of their party. On net balance across the country, however, redistricting should give the Republicans a slight plus.

The Democrats are hoping that a big Democratic win in California will produce so many new pro-Kennedy party members that they will offset losses elsewhere. This, at least, is a cheery way of looking at a loss. An important factor is the outcome of the California gubernatorial battle. The net of all the party estimates on the House is that there is unlikely to be any sufficient change to alter the present climate there. Unless there is a major upset one way or the other, the House will continue to support the President on foreign and military policy; it will only grudgingly approve his new ventures in domestic fields.

If the Republican governors win

As to the third area of political conflict, the governorships, the Democrats look like the losers. Of 35 governorships to be filled on November 6, 21 are now held by Democrats. But the importance this fall lies in the fact that the Democrats are in trouble in three big states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. They are also strongly challenged in California, and in the other big state, New York, the only one held by a Republican, they will be lucky if they make even a respectable showing.

Governor Rockefeller’s aim is to increase his 1958 margin of victory, when he topped his Democratic opponent by nearly 575,000 votes. Some of his supporters, thinking how useful it would be in furthering Rockefeller’s presidential aspirations, even dare to talk of carrying New York City. No Republican has won a clear majority in the city since Warren Harding in 1920. Rockefeller lost it by more than 300,000 votes four years ago.

In Pennsylvania the GOP is united behind an attractive candidate in the person of first-term Representative William W. Scranton. He faces former Philadelphia Mayor Richardson Dilworth, who has tried and failed before to win the governorship. High unemployment and long Democratic incumbency in the governor’s chair are working in Scranton’s favor. If he wins he will quickly join the list of those mentioned for President, or at least for Vice President, in 1964.

In Ohio Democratic Governor Michael DiSalle will have his hands full, the Democrats concede, against GOP State Auditor James A. Rhodes. However, nobody seems to think that even a big Rhodes victory would turn him into anything more than a strong possibility for another term in the same post.

In Michigan the presidential talk about George Romney is already well advertised, and it may help him win the governorship, state pride still being strong. Romney has succeeded in giving the GOP in his state a far more moderate, and more modern, cast than it has had for many a year, and that should attract a lot of independents and conservative Democrats at the expense of ultraliberal Governor John B. Swainson. Here, too, the Democrats have held the governorship a long time, and both the Republicans and many Democrats outside the Detroit metropolitan area dislike the Democratic ties with labor. In Romney they have an attractive alternative, and he will be a tough opponent for Swainson, who lacks the political flair of his mentor and predecessor, G. Mennen Williams.

The California battle between Richard Nixon and Edmund (Pat) Brown promises to be a historic one if only because the former Vice President is fighting for his political life. He has had to commit himself to serving a full four-year term, if elected, which would make it a difficult political trick to try again for the White House in 1964.

Two other Republicans, one in office and another likely to get there, are at least vice presidential possibilities. One is Governor Mark Hatfield of Oregon, who must win reelection; the other is Fred Seaton, Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Interior, who is running for the governorship in Nebraska.

It is evident that if the Republicans do as well as many here in the Capital think they will in the gubernatorial races, the 1964 GOP presidential and vice presidential candidates will probably be a pair of governors. Only two nongovernors are now on the political horizon: one is Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who insists he wants to run again for the Senate in 1964; the other is Robert Taft, Jr., son of the late GOP Senate chief, who is expected to win Ohio’s new seat as congressman-at-large. A big win plus his name should be enough at least to start a Taft political boomlet, unusual for a House member.

GOP gubernatorial gains would produce a crop of presidential hopefuls for the Republicans and headaches for the Democrats in 1964. Kennedy has reason to expect an all but unanimous renomination of the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. But he would be in a stronger position if the big-electoral-vote states were under Democratic gubernatorial control, because governors control powerful party machines useful in drumming up votes on election day. Kennedy is well aware of this, and his campaigning this fall will be a combination affair for senators, House members, and governors.

The President’s strategy

The President hopes to make his medicare plan the centerpiece of the fall campaign. Some Democrats in Washington have been saying that they are not sure this will be easy. If the public would accept the Kennedy thesis that Democrats by and large want to help the old folks, whereas Republicans for the most part are heartless, the President’s strategy probably would work.

But the Republicans, plus the American Medical Association and other assorted foes of the Kennedy plan, have managed to shift the issue. As they see it, it is whether to approve the “socialistic, compulsory” Kennedy plan or some “individual choice” alternative which will not raise social security taxes (even though it would mean a big charge on the Treasury). Kennedy’s first task this fall, if Iris political line of attack is to help elect Democrats, will be to reshape the issue closer to the way he wants the voters to see it. And that is not likely to be simple.

Mood of the Capital

The imponderables, of course, cannot be overlooked. A sudden change in the economy, though not expected, could have severe political repercussions. A foreign crisis — and the expectation here is for a chill autumn on the Berlin issue — also cannot be discounted, though its political effect depends both on the timing and on Kennedy’s skill in handling it.

All things considered, it will be a surprise in Washington if the 1962 elections produce any major shift in the balance of power within the Congress or a new crop of GOP presidential and vice presidential hopefuls. This is not a period in American history when any sudden or basic shifts of attitude on domestic policy are likely to appear and thereby to alter the current balance between those who want “to anchor down” and those who want “to sail,” a balance that produces something which at times seems akin to drifting.