The Politics of Stalemate:
Will the Republican-Southern Democratic Coalition Continue?
At the foot of Capitol Hill stands the newly dedicated Taft Memorial Carillon and, in front of it, a statue of the late Ohio Senator, It is easy to see the carillon and the statue as a monument to the perpetual frustration of a political faction whose hero thrice sought the presidency in vain. Conservative Republicanism built Taft a carillon in death because he never made the White House in life. But perhaps it is too soon to record the frustration, and the benign face of the statue may yet conceal a canny chuckle.
For the Washington political scene in 1959 was, oddly enough, still dominated in many ways by the spirit of this near-great man who has been dead for half a dozen years. Taft was the only impressive conservative politician of our era, and ours is still a conservative age. The Democratic victory in last year’s Congressional elections gave a deceptively liberal hue to the scene, but under our system the President, and not Congress, defines me issues and the political era. If we have a passive, status quo President, we have passive, status quo government; Congress cannot make it otherwise. Congress can slow down the pace but it cannot speed it up very much. The election of 1958 will have been decisive only if it was the prelude to a liberal victory in next year’s presidential contest. If the conservatives win the presidency again, the stalemate will continue for another four years. The political story of the past year has been the story of the politics of stalemate. The underlying struggle between and within the two parties has been fought over the question of whether the stalemate is to be broken, and if so, how change is to be brought about.
The stalemate began in 1938 When a substantial portion of the middle classes, alarmed by the court-packing fight and the sit-down strikes, defected from Franklin Roosevelt’s political leadership and voted for the Republicans, doubling the latter’s strength in the House of Representatives. From that time forward, the New Deal in domestic affairs was dead. The Republicans with their Southern Democratic allies were able to block any further innovations in the government’s domestic policies. (There were extraordinary initiatives in foreign affairs after 1938, but that as a separate story.) The dominant figure on the conservative side in the domestic stalemate for fifteen of these twenty years was the late Senator Taft. He was elected to the Senate from Ohio in 1938 and almost immediately took intellectual and strategic command of the Senate Republicans.
Taft went through four phases during his subsequent career on Capitol Hill. During his first term, he was a standard flat-voiced, steel-rimmed Midwestern conservative. Beginning, however, toward the end of World War II, he moved by a process of self-education to a more creative position in certain fields of policy, particularly education and housing. The 80th Congress of 1947-48 was the high point of this second phase when Taft, at the height of his powers, rewrote the nation’s labor law, initiated a major tax cut which President Truman vetoed, and wrote housing legislation which his own reactionary admirers, more royalist than the king, blocked in the House.
Taft entered the third stage of his career in 1950 when, enraged by his repeated failures to win the presidency, he slipped into a pose of automatic hostility. “It is the duty of the opposition to oppose,” he would often say. Teaming up with Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska, he engaged in a running, nagging, ill-tempered assault on the Truman administration. The fourth and final phase of his career came in the winter of 1952-53, in the last six months of his life, when he became reconciled to the fact he would never live in the White House and resolved to make the new Eisenhower administration a success by becoming its de facto prime minister. It is worth recalling Taft’s career because so much of his political handiwork still survives.
The key to Taft’s strategy in his unequal struggle against President Roosevelt and his more equal struggle against President Truman was the support of about a dozen Southern Democrats in the Senate and about 60 of them in the House. The 22 senators and approximately 125 representatives from the eleven states of the old Confederacy have over the years split approximately down the middle between conservatives on one side and liberals and moderates on the other. With the support of about half of the South’s forces, Taft and the Republican minority were able to block most of the Roosevelt and Truman domestic programs. It was beside the point that the Democrats were most of the time in nominal control of Congress. Minority status had serious consequences for the Republican party as an institution, but for the broader cause of conservatism the bipartisan coalition worked well enough. And it had an unbroken majority for twenty years.
The significance of last year’s election was that it seemed to indicate that the twenty-year stalemate was drawing to a close. With 282 Democrats elected as against only 153 Republicans, the moderates and liberals who control the Democratic party in Congress had for the first time since 1938 a working majority and could operate effectively in spite of the usual opposition of 60 to 65 Southern conservatives.
Despite these gains, the record of positive legislative accomplishment by the first session of the 86th Congress was remarkably bleak. The outlook for next year is not much better. There has been widespread chagrin and disappointment over this performance, but it was almost inevitable given the nature of our presidential government and the kind of leadership our Congressional system tends to bring to the top.
What happened was that President Eisenhower, seeing the stalemate jeopardized by the new Congress with its swollen Democratic majority, determined to protect the status quo by the consistent use of his veto. There was nothing surprising or unprecedented in this policy. He would have used the veto much more often during the preceding six years except that he had been dealing with a Congress closely divided between the two parties, which meant, in effect, a substantial conservative majority. The conservative Congresses of the 1953-58 period did not send Mr. Eisenhower much liberal legislation and therefore Mr. Eisenhower did not have much to veto. There was, of course, no such figure as the “new Ike,” that happy invention of the daily press and the news magazines. (Is it really credible to sup pose that any man of sixty-nine is going to develop a markedly new personal style or a different approach to his job?) Mr. Eisenhower did not change; circumstances did.
In the course of using his veto, the President this past year made it unmistakably clear that he had fully identified himself and his administration with the hard core, true-blue conservatives of the Taft wing of the party. “Modern Republicanism” was quietly interred, but that was a change that had been long underway. The timid initiatives and modest social welfare extensions of the first Eisenhower administration were already becoming things of the past when Arthur Larson tried to give them a name and a coherence in A Republican Looks at His Party in 1956. Modern Republicanism may be said to have had the longest wake in history.
The Eisenhower vetoes were not so numerous nor so important in themselves. He vetoed two “pork barrel” public works bills (and on the second veto was overridden). These bills are the kind that every President vetoes at one time or another in an attempt to keep within some respectable bounds the incestuous and prolific love affair between the Army Engineers and the appropriations committees of Congress. Mr. Eisenhower vetoed two farm bills, thereby maintaining the zero-zero score of the contest between the administration and Congress over farm legislation. He vetoed a relatively minor bill which would have removed the Secretary of Agriculture’s supervisory power over the making of loans by the Rural Electrification Administration. And he killed two housing bills before getting a third he was willing to sign The protracted struggle over housing legislation was the only important battle in the war of the veto. More significant than the bills he actually vetoed, however, was the fact that the President’s course of action cast a negative pall over the workings of Congress. Since his Democratic adversaries did not have a two-thirds majority to override him, they could not escape ultimate frustration at his hands. The vetoes underscored this reality and imbued them with a defeatist psychology. In some of his vetoes, particularly those of the housing bills, Mr. Eisenhower was more Taftian than Taft himself might have been. But in preserving the barriers against broad liberal change and in paralyzing the Democratic opposition, the President proved fully worthy of the tradition of his dead rival.
Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas, the talented and indefatigable Democratic floor leader, led his party to several serious defeats because he, too, walked in Taft’s shadow. Johnson became minority floor leader in January 1953, at the same time that Taft began the brief period of service as majority floor leader which ended with his death.
Johnson has repeatedly held up the leadership which Taft and Kenneth Wherry gave the Republicans during the second Truman administration as a horrible example of what not to do. He has contended that their intransigent hostility and their daily harassment did nothing to strengthen their own party at the polls and only created a picture in the public mind of a quarrelsome, irresponsible faction. Johnson has scorned Taft’s dictum: “The duty of the opposition is to oppose.” Johnson has always argued that the opposition’s first responsibility is to share in the task of governing. In his view, the country did not send the Democrats to Congress to wage cold war on the President, and what the country wants is disinterested collaboration across party lines. Johnson’s dictum has been: “We are here to make laws, not make issues.”
The contrast between Johnson’s technique as an opposition leader dealing with Mr. Eisenhower and Taft’s dealing with Mr. Truman has often been noted. It is less frequently realized to what an extraordinary extent Johnson stepped into another Taft role, that of informal, de facto prime minister to the administration. Indeed, Johnson has been a better prime minister for the President than Taft could ever have been because he wholeheartedly supports the basic principles of the administration’s foreign policy. When Senator Knowland, Taft’s appointed heir on the Republican side, dragged his feet on foreign aid or temporarily relinquished his leadership post to speak out against aid to Tito, it was Johnson who smoothly filled the gap and supplied the President with the necessary votes. There is no real parallel in our history for the collaboration between the Senate leader of one party and the President of the other which Johnson and Mr. Eisenhower carried on between 1955 and 1958. The closest analogy is with the period of 1893-97 when the Republicans gave President Cleveland’s financial policies more cordial support than most of his own party did.
It appears that when this year’s session began, Johnson expected to continue his prime-ministerial role vis-à-vis Mr. Eisenhower, with the only change being somewhat better terms for the Democratic side when the usual compromises were struck. He did not reckon with the consequences of the election. Mr. Eisenhower, who had been listing slowly to the right with each passing year, was genuinely alarmed by the triumph of the liberals at the polls and resolved to stand unalterably firm for fiscal sanity as he understood it. At the same time, the liberal Democrats, exhilarated by their triumph and impatient after years of compromise and delay, began reporting out of committee in the Senate ambitious, expensive programs for airports, housing, depressed areas, and other projects. The liberals, in other words, were raising their terms somewhat higher than Johnson had anticipated at the same time that the President was becoming less rather than more conciliatory. The gap was widening and becoming harder to compromise.
At first Johnson followed the strategy of “veto proofing” bills by scaling down their range and dollar cost before sending them to the White House. This strategy failed badly. It was defensive in its psychology and when the vetoes were nevertheless forthcoming, it offered no alternative except further retreats. By the end of the session, Johnson was reduced to pretending that the measures finally passed, which were far below his party’s original intentions, were in fact what he and his fellow Democrats had wanted all along.
On the big issues, such as civil rights, budget balancing, and labor union controls, Johnson tended toward the conservative side. In effect, he was saying that he believed the majority of the public was in accord with Mr. Eisenhower’s views and preferred a continuation of stalemate government rather than risk any new ventures of either a liberal or a markedly reactionary kind. It was this fundamental attitude rather than his position on any specific piece of legislation that marked the growing rift between Johnson and such Democratic liberals as Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania, Paul Douglas of Illinois, and William Proxmire of Wisconsin. Clark began keeping a tally sheet which by session’s end showed that on seven major votes and numerous minor ones Johnson had voted with the majority of the Senate but not with the majority of his fellow Democrats. These votes suggested that he was becoming the leader of the old bipartisan conservative coalition (Republicans plus Southern Democrats), with only the occasional addition of a scattering of Western Democrats to leaven the customary mixture.
Before the 1958 election, Johnson could defend his collaboration with Mr. Eisenhower on the grounds that his paper-thin one- or two-vote majorities were not sufficient to enable him to follow a more aggressive course. Last year’s election wiped out that argument and left him confronting a serious choice. The decision he finally made demonstrated that his policy of cooperation with the administration had been from the first a matter of preference rather than necessity.
Vice President Nixon is the man commonly regarded as the present inheritor of Taft’s strength in the Republican party. The old-line conservatives who revere Taft’s memory know that Nixon is not really one of them, but they much prefer him to the only visible alternative, Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. The motif of Nixon’s activities during this past year has been his attempt to hold his erstwhile Taft support while escaping the frustrating fate that befell Taft’s presidential ambitions. It is significant, for example, that Nixon did not jump to the fore in the fight for a severely restrictive labor law. The Landrum-Griffin bill which passed the House and which was ultimately amalgamated with the Senate’s Kennedy bill was the handiwork of the business organization lobbies, not of the conservative politicians. Nixon was fox the Landrum-Griffin bill, but he took care not to become too actively identified with the labor control controversy. He likewise scaled new peaks of prudence in his approach to the inflation problem. As chairman of the President’s Cabinet Committee on Price Stability for Economic Growth, he teetered nicely between an emphasis on the danger of inflation and the counter-balancing emphasis on the importance of economic expansion. He did not publicly dissent from the orthodox hard money, high interest rate policy promulgated by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board, but neither did he join the administration’s full-throated campaign against the specter of inflation. Nixon is clearly determined to avoid the anti-labor and budget-first stereotypes which so severely damaged Taft’s availability as a national candidate.
His most dramatic gambit was his journey to Russia and Poland. This, too, had the special ambiguity of all of the Vice President’s political effects. If the summit meeting and subsequent negotiations are successful, he can claim a share of the credit for helping to initiate the “relaxation of tensions.” If the negotiations fail, he can simply refer to his exchange with Khrushchev in Moscow as proof that he is a man Who knows how to be tough with the Russians. Nothing he said or did on his visit committed him to any fundamental policy. The visit in political terms remains an open-end affair.
Nixon needs all the maneuverability he can muster, for he faces Taft’s old problem and has only a few assets with which to cope with it. That problem is how to persuade the Republican party, the minority party, that it can win if it nominates him. Mr. Eisenhower had his status as a supra-political hero and his winning personality. Nixon, like Taft, has neither of these assets. He must rely upon his flexibility as a campaigner and his shrewdness in gauging the shifting tides of public opinion.
The issue to be decided in the next twelve months is whether the stalemate which began when Taft entered the Senate in 1938, and over which he presided for so long and which survived his death, is at last to be broken. The election returns of 1958 would suggest that its end is near, but the judgment of as sagacious a politician as Lyndon Johnson indicates a belief that it will persist for another four years. The politics of stalemate during 1959 have made the shape of next year’s choice reasonably clear. On the Democratic side, the two most active candidates, Senators Kennedy and Humphrey, are clearly committed by their records to championing a strong presidential role and to offering liberal leadership to break the deadlock. Senator Johnson, on the other hand, is a candidate who believes the Democrats can and should follow a centrist course. He is, in a sense, a candidate for the role of a Democratic Eisenhower.
On the Republican side, the Nixon candidacy, although lacking the Eisenhower charisma, represents essentially a promise to maintain the status quo. Nixon, like Mr. Eisenhower, has few well-defined public positions and can therefore adopt vaguely liberal (or just plain vague) views. But, again like Mr. Eisenhower, he has never in fact wandered very far from the conservative orthodoxy in domestic affairs which Taft expounded.
The alternative candidacy of Governor Rockefeller would pose a distinct threat to the existing stalemate. If Rockefeller were to espouse as President the same liberal policies advocated in the Rockefeller Reports and put forward by him in Albany, he could not rely upon the Republican-Southern Democratic coalition to pass them. He would in all likelihood draw more support from liberal Democrats. This would signify a revolution in long established relationships between the two parties. It would bury the old Taft era forever.
Can the Democratic party win an election as the party of centrists and conservatives? Can the Republican party be refashioned into an instrument for liberal change? Whether or not the present stalemate is broken, the coming year is likely to provide answers to these questions.
Jean Rogers Anstey
We have been deeply saddened by the sudden, untimely death of our colleague, Jean Rogers Anstey. Her lively and sympathetic presence added a special measure of warmth to the COMMENTARY office, and she served the magazine, for the past eleven years, with an affection that went much beyond the regular demands of her job in the circulation department. We shall miss her greatly.