Monday, January 2, 2017

The Presidency Regularly Changes Hands But We Seem Not to Get Use to It

There have been long stretches of single-party rule in American history, but even when the president is from the same party from administration to administration, often the Congress changes hands as it did toward the end of the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, and as it has for the second terms of the last three presidents.

Thomas Jefferson
The longest single-party domination of the presidency was from 1801 to 1829 when the Democratic-Republicans, the party of Thomas Jefferson, held on to the highest office. This streak was only stopped when the first Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, won the election of 1828. Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren, only held the presidency for twelve years, but the Democratic-Republican Party was eclipsed by the Democratic Party. The new opposition party to the Democrats was the Whig Party, which disappeared from the scene when it could not adequately negotiate the growing divide over slavery. There were only four Whig presidents, all between 1841 and 1853, and the party never had an uninterrupted streak of more than two presidents. (In fact, two of the Whig presidents died in office and were succeeded by their vice-presidents who were never elected as presidents.)

The second-longest streak of single-party domination of the presidency was from 1861 to 1885, although, I have to fudge a little here because Abraham Lincoln, while elected as a Republican in 1860, ran on the Union Party ticket in 1864. His running mate was Andrew Johnson, who had actually been a Democrat. When Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson became president, the Republicans who controlled Congress were not fooled into thinking that he was one of them. The two non-consecutive presidential terms of Democrat Grover Cleveland interrupted what would have been a much longer streak for the Republicans who kept the presidency from the end of Cleveland’s term in 1897 until 1913—16 years.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
The third-longest period of one party’s holding on to the  presidency was from 1933 until 1953 when the Roosevelt Democrats changed the American political landscape in ways that many Americans have arguably not been reflective enough to fully understand for the seismic shift that this twenty-year period truly was.

In between these long streaks, there have been short and long periods of shifting back and forth between rival parties. Especially since 1952, presidential elections have seen more swapping back and forth rather than long streaks. During the past 64 years, the pattern has generally been eight years of Republican administration followed by eight of Democratic.

Ronald Reagan
The only exception during this period was the sixteen years from 1977 until 1993 when Democrat James Earl Carter succeeded a Republican president but was unable to win a second term. His successor, Ronald Reagan and his successor George H. W. Bush, then headed three Republican terms. Since then, however, there have been three two-term presidencies representing alternating parties.

The recent presidential election was in accord with the general pattern of the past 64 years. A two-term Democratic presidency is now about to be succeeded by a Republican one. Of course, no one is ever objective enough to take these big patterns in stride. It seemed to Democrats as if they were on a roll such that another Democrat in the White House for another four to eight years should have been in the cards, but President Barack Obama has turned out to be unique. Perhaps, not to put too fine a point on the matter, it was that Obama’s would-be heir apparent, Hillary Clinton, was not appealing enough as a candidate in her own right as Obama had been. While he had hoped that his policies and not his personality were what Americans wanted, she seemed to prove that the people were less than ardorous about staying on the course that Obama had set during his presidency.

What really hurt the Democrats’ cause was that they lost votes in the presidential election in each year since 2008. Obama won in 2008 with about 69 million votes. This dropped to 65 million in 2012, which was still plenty to defeat his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney, but Hillary Clinton barely got 60 million votes in 2016, enough to out-poll Donald Trump in the popular vote, but not enough to win state-by-state in the Electoral College. (If Romney had run against Clinton and got the same vote total he got in 2012, he would have won the popular vote.) It wasn’t that more people voted for the Republican in 2016; it was that fewer people voted for the Democrat.

“The Landslide Brought Me Down”

Donald Trump and his spokesmen keep saying that he won by a landslide. He did not. Occasionally they are careful to specify that it was an Electoral College landslide, but it really wasn’t that, either. Now, Ronald Reagan won two landslides, the second bigger than the first, and many presidents have had bigger wins than Trump. He got slightly less than his opponent in the popular vote and only three-fifths of the Electoral College. I would not regard much less than four-fifths of the College as a landslide.
By Gage - 2012 Electoral College map, CC BY-SA 4.0,

That being said, I would not go along with those who regard Trump’s victory as illegitimate just because he did not win the popular vote. The Electoral College exists for a very good reason: It makes the election about the states—populous and less populous alike. If we were to go only by the popular vote, then the largest cities on the coasts and in the extreme north and south of the middle—basically, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas—would decide every election. Candidates would have no reason to campaign anywhere but in the big cities; nor would they have any need to listen to the concerns of Americans who live in rural areas. (You know, the people who grow most of the food that us city folks like to eat.) The Electoral College allows the small and under-populated states to have more of a say.

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