Politics & Policy

Wartime Elections

Lessons of history.

Republicans are licking their chops. Polls show that two of every three Americans believe President George W. Bush is doing a good job. He has won two major offensives in the war on terrorism and had two major breakthroughs in the war on taxes. Most Americans trust their commander-in-chief and instinctively like the man.

Democrats are on the ropes. Their bid to take over the White House has begun in earnest, yet two-thirds of Americans cannot identify a single candidate. Worse, the party is saddled with the Clintons — she, one of the most divisive politicians in America; he, one of the most garrulous. Their need to hog the spotlight is casting a shadow on the new crop of candidates, and it is troubling Democratic strategists to no end. The Clintons’ libido dominendi could be a problem right up to Election Day 2004.

So George W. Bush coasts to reelection, right?

Not so fast. Looking forward, Karl Rove and company know that setbacks in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, or the U.S. economy could disenchant a critical mass of voters over the next 17 months.

Looking backward, strategists may also detect historical forces that could derail the president’s reelection bid. An examination of American history reveals a curious relationship between major wars and national elections. Specifically, two patterns emerge. (1) In our nation’s 19th-century wars, the party in power during the war tended to stay in power after the war. (2) In our nation’s 20th-century wars, the party in power during the war tended to lose power after the war.

In the spirit of open inquiry, let us concede that the two patterns may be coincidental — post hoc, ergo propter hoc. After all, history is not monocausal but bafflingly complex. Nor does history operate by scientific laws. Where there is free will, the past is not condemned to repeat itself. Nevertheless, historically minded pols might want to investigate why, in the last hundred years, war parties were almost always repudiated after the war.

Another interesting development stands out in historical relief. War, it seems, contributed to the demise of two major parties that were divided over the question of war. Federalists were finished off within a decade following the War of 1812, and Whigs disappeared about a decade after the Mexican War. Perhaps this should worry Democrats.

Let’s look at specifics, starting with the 19th century and proceeding chronologically. The United States fought several significant wars in its first hundred years of existence. In the five conflicts highlighted below, the party in power during the war retained significant power after the war.

TRIPOLITAN WAR

When Muslims waged war against the U.S. (1801-1805), President Thomas Jefferson deployed the fledging U.S. Navy to the Mediterranean and defeated the Barbary pirates. Upshot: Jefferson’s party, the Democratic-Republicans, retained control of the presidency and Congress for many years thereafter. (Good news for today’s Republicans.)

WAR OF 1812

The War of 1812 (ended 1815) occurred on the watch of President James Madison, another Democratic-Republican. Although going to war against the British was vigorously opposed by New England Federalists, the president’s party remained in control of the White House and Congress in subsequent elections. Indeed, Democratic-Republicans became, for all practical purposes, “the American party” whose dominance led to the “Era of Good Feelings.” Upshot: on the one hand, the pro-war party prevailed in the White House and on Capitol Hill for many years after the war. (Great news for today’s Republicans.) On the other hand, the Federalist party was finished within a decade. (Ominous news for today’s Democrats.)

MEXICAN WAR

Prior to the 1840s, America’s wars against foreign nations were predominantly defensive; the Mexican War (1846-1848) was not. Because of the appeal of Manifest Destiny, this expansionist war was popular with the people and enjoyed bipartisan support. It was prosecuted by President James Polk, a Democrat, and by a supportive Congress with Whig majorities in the House and Senate. The Americans beat the Mexicans on their own soil with moderate battlefield casualties.

After such a popular war both parties would rack up electoral victories. In 1848 Whig candidate General Zachary Taylor — a war hero — would win the White House, and Democrats would win control of the House. Upshot: In the short run, pro-war candidates won all around. (Good news for today’s incumbents who supported the Iraq war.)

It should be noted, some prominent northeastern Whigs did oppose the war on constitutional grounds, but they did not prevail. Their party may have suffered as a result. Over the next dozen years, the Whig party, more divided over the war than the Democratic party had been, withered away. (Very bad news for Lieberman, Daschle, Pelosi, et al.)

CIVIL WAR

They may have called it different things: northerners, the “Civil War”; southerners, the “War of Northern Aggression.” But for both it was a Republican war, Abraham Lincoln being that party’s first president. During the war (1861-1865), Capitol Hill was dominated by the Republican party and its Unionist-party offshoot. Despite deep divisions in the party and the nation during Reconstruction, Republicans kept getting elected to the White House; the brief interlude was the accidental administration of Andrew Johnson, who at heart was a Jacksonian Democrat. Republicans also dominated both houses of Congress during Reconstruction. Upshot: The party that won the war sustained a winning streak after the war. (Good news for Bush, Frist, Hastert, et al.)

SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR

The Spanish-American War (1898), a Republican war, was waged in the middle of William McKinley’s first term. It bears similarities to the recently concluded operation against Iraq in that it was fairly popular and entailed relatively few battlefield casualties. Two years later, McKinley was easily reelected to a second term. The Democrat who lost in 1900, William Jennings Bryan, had campaigned as an anti-imperialist, denouncing our nation’s involvement in the Philippines. Upshot: The party that led the nation in war would retain control of the presidency and enjoy huge majorities in Congress for more than a decade following the war. (Great news for incumbent Republicans.)

If the 19th century tended to reward political parties for fighting wars, the 20th century was less forgiving. More often than not, such parties were the unexpected casualties of war.

WORLD WAR I

The so-called war to end all wars (1914-1918) was largely a Democratic affair since the U.S. became involved in 1917 on Woodrow Wilson’s watch and when Democrats controlled Congress. The conflict ground to an unsatisfactory halt in 1918. In midterm elections that year, the voters punished Wilson by giving control of the House and Senate to Republicans. Two years later — despite the Fourteen Points and Versailles Treaty and Nobel Peace Prize for Wilson — voters thoroughly repudiated the Democrats, putting a Republican in the White House and giving the GOP huge majorities on Capitol Hill. Upshot: The war party lost big after the war. (Not good news for today’s war party.)

WORLD WAR II

The great struggle against the Axis powers (1939-1945) was also led by Democrats. Franklin Roosevelt and then Harry S. Truman were in the White House, and Democrats initially enjoyed huge majorities in Congress. In 1946, however, in the first midterm elections following the war, Republican candidates for Congress won big. It was the first time in 18 years that the GOP controlled Capitol Hill. A similar upending was happening in postwar Britain, where Labour made huge gains and turned Conservatives out. Recall, Churchill’s summit meeting with Truman and Stalin at Potsdam was cut short because he was fired as prime minister!

In the U.S., the erosion of Democratic control in 1946 was part of a larger pattern throughout the decade: Democrats lost considerable ground in Congress all through the 1940s, declining from 69 to 45 members in the Senate, and from 267 to 188 members in the House. By 1948 the smart money was on Harry Truman losing his bid for reelection. But the incumbent Democrat bucked the trend — barely — pulling off one of the greatest upsets in presidential history. His eleventh-hour whistle-stop campaign, in which he railed against the “do-nothing, good-for-nothing” Republicans in the 80th Congress, saved his hide. Upshot: The war did not uniformly strengthen incumbents’ fortunes. (Bad news for the GOP majority in today’s Congress, but perhaps good news for today’s sitting president.)

KOREA

The Korean conflict (1950-1953) was yet another Democratic-led war. When it broke out, Truman was in the White House and Democrats enjoyed substantial majorities in both houses of Congress. It quickly proved to be a drag on the Democratic party in general and on President Truman in particular. His popularity sank to an all-time low in the history of presidential polling, lower even than Nixon’s approval rating during the Watergate scandal. The war ground to a stalemate by the 1952 general election. Truman’s Democratic successor, Adlai Stevenson, lost in a landslide to General Eisenhower, the GOP candidate who promised to “go to Korea” and bring about a resolution to the conflict. Republicans also recaptured control of Congress in the ‘52 elections. Upshot: The war was bad for incumbents’ political health. (By analogy, this is bad news for today’s incumbent Republicans.)

VIETNAM

Technically Vietnam (1965-1975) became an American concern in 1954, when Republicans were in the driver’s seat. Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and the GOP held paper-thin majorities in both houses of Congress. Eisenhower pledged U.S. support to the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. Almost five years would pass before the first two Americans were killed in hostile fire, but our nation was not yet in a state of war.

Vietnam only loomed large to the American public in 1964, after the Tonkin Gulf incident. At that point, Democrats were leading the charge. Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and his party was enjoying overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, the result of Goldwater’s ill-fated campaign. By 1968 the war had become an albatross around the nation’s neck. Here superficial parallels with Korea can be seen. When the war dragged on, Democratic control of Congress slipped. Also, voters denied Democratic continuity in the White House. Richard Nixon persuaded voters that he had a better way to disengage honorably from Vietnam. Although he barely won a majority of the popular vote in 1968, four years later he engineered a landslide reelection after initiating “Vietnamization” and after his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger proclaimed “peace is at hand” in Vietnam.

Whether in spite of Nixon or because of him, throughout the late ’60s and ’70s Democrats were more successful at distancing themselves from America’s longest, most unpopular war, and Jimmy Carter won an extremely close election in 1976. Also in the ‘76 elections, Democrats built up tremendous House and Senate majorities — the legacy of Vietnam and Watergate. Upshot: as the years dragged on, few who supported this unpopular war fared well. (A well-rehearsed cautionary tale to all candidates in 2004.)

COLD WAR

The Cold War (1947-1989) was under way when President Truman promulgated his famous doctrine to contain Communism. Over the years, Democrats and Republicans would experience setbacks as well as successes in the fight against the Soviet Union, Red China, and their satellites and allies. But by November of 1989, when the Berlin Wall came crashing down, victory in the Cold War was credited to two Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Reagan, it will be recalled, also enjoyed a Republican-led Senate from 1981-1987.

One year after the breakup of the Soviet Empire, President Bush was up for reelection. Because the economy was struggling, the public turned against Bush and voted in Bill Clinton. On Capitol Hill in 1992, the results were mixed. Democrats added to their majority in the Senate, but lost eleven seats in the House. Upshot: running the last lap of the Cold War — and winning the contest with nary a shot fired in the last days — did not translate into later electoral success. (Not good news down the road for those who have supported the war against terror.)

PERSIAN GULF WAR

It was President George H. W. Bush who built up a remarkable international coalition and led the charge to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. At the time, Democrats enjoyed comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress, but were deeply divided over whether to go to war against Saddam Hussein. After Operation Desert Storm achieved its objective in a brilliant, lightning-quick campaign, the president’s approval ratings soared to 90 percent. Twenty months later Bush lost his bid for reelection to Clinton. Although Democrats retained control of the House, their lead was cut by eleven seats. Upshot: incumbents beware, for military glory can fade in a sputtering economy. (Not especially good news for today’s incumbents.)

To recap, during the 19th century, the party that waged war typically remained in power after the war. This is what happened in five significant wars from the Jefferson to the McKinley administrations. In the 20th century, the opposite occurred. The party in power during the war usually lost significant power after the war. This is what happened in six significant wars from the Wilson to the George H. W. Bush administrations. The upshot: The trend during the last 100 years would not be encouraging to today’s sitting president and leaders of Congress.

But here’s another way to view this little survey. Democrats were in power at the start of five wars (Mexican, World War I, World War II, Korean, Vietnam), and were repudiated or greatly weakened in the aftermath of four of those five wars. Republicans were in power at the start of three wars (Civil War, Spanish-American, Persian Gulf), and were repudiated or greatly weakened in the aftermath of one of those three wars. The upshot: War has not been as hard on the Republican party as on the Democratic party.

And that’s good news for George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress.

Gleaves Whitney is editor of a book of wartime speeches of American presidents, to be published later this year by Rowman & Littlefield. This article is adapted from the book’s introduction.

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