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.

In 1918, with the Kaiser’s army retreating into Germany and only days to go before the Armistice, the Republicans captured both houses of Congress from the Democrats, winning twenty-five House and five Senate seats. The GOP victory nullified President Woodrow Wilson’s objective in the war—to join the United States in a "concert of nations" to keep the peace so that "this terrible task will not have to be done once more." Wilson invoked the memory of the war dead—"Do not forget the forlorn homes from which those boys went out…. Ask any soldier if he wants to go through a hell like that again"—but in vain. The Republicans bemoan the "perfect storm" of troubles confronting them this year, much as the Democrats felt fate turning on them in 1918. Already weakened by anti-war backlash, the Democrats saw the deaths of eight of their senators during the sixty-fifth Congress of 1916–1918. If only one of them, Wisconsin’s Paul O. Husting, had not been killed in a duck-hunting accident, the Democrats would have held the Senate and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge would not have become Majority Leader and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In Wilson’s words, Lodge would not have  been in a position to" br[eak] the heart of the world" by blocking U.S. entry into the League of Nations.

The defeat of so many members of the war party less than a year after Pearl Harbor may surprise Americans smitten with "the good war," a Capra-esque fable in which Americans united behind their president to defeat Hitler and Tojo. They didn’t unite behind FDR; many blamed him for Pearl Harbor. September 11 was George Bush’s Pearl Harbor, but in the congressional election of 2002 his party added to its majority in the House and took back the Senate from the Democrats. Did 2002 mean Americans had stopped punishing the war party in congressional elections? No. Other than bombing crews pounding Afghanistan from the safety of the skies and a few soldiers and CIA operatives marking targets on the ground, U.S. forces were not engaged in combat in November 2002.

The other two wartime congressional elections—1950 and 1966—are perhaps the most apposite models for 2006. In 1950, with the  deeply unpopular Korean War raging, Republicans attacked Harry Truman and the Democrats for being "soft" on Communism. The campaign was vicious; Joe McCarthy, the Republican Senator from Wisconsin, helped defeat Millard Tydings, the Maryland Democrat who had led a Senate investigation of McCarthy, by circulating doctored photographs of Tydings talking with the head of the American Communist Party. With the war and  Truman’s approval ratings in the thirties dragging them down, the Democrats suffered losses of twenty-eight seats in the House and seven in the Senate. In 1966, with the United States "waist deep in the Big Muddy" of Vietnam, in Lyndon Johnson’s words, Democrats lost forty-seven House and three Senate seats. Yet a majority of Americans still supported the war, whereas the majority oppose the Iraq war now, and 48 percent approved of Johnson’s handling of his office—10 to 15 percent more than approve of George W. Bush’s performance.

A GOP defeat will make Iraq radioactive to the Republicans left standing, motivating them to get U.S. troops out of Iraq before the 2008 elections; the bigger the Democratic win, the sooner the withdrawal. Rejection of the war party will complicate John McCain’s pro-war candidacy in 2008. You can’t sell a war to a people who have just repudiated it. As for the Democratic presidential candidates for 2008, they will follow the voters and call for a U.S. redeployment from an Iraq descending into civil war. Finally, a massive loss for his party may force Bush to face reality. According to Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, the president says he will keep sending Americans to die in Iraq until they complete "the mission," even if he has only two supporters. Defeat will nerve the GOP survivors to insist he consider the views of a wider reference group than "Laura and Barney."