Democratic Control of the House and Senate--What Happened?

This year marks a unique anniversary. 1994 was the last year the Democrats had solid control of the House and Senate. Yes, I know 2001 and 2002 they had slim control of the Senate. But what I am saying is, starting with FDR (1933-45) Democrats became the majority party. Then after Kennedy (1961-3) their control seemed to solidify even more. Now they seemed to have lost all this, and there is a good chance they won’t gain control this election cycle either. What happened?


They were victimized by a very effective and well-financed propaganda machine.

What spoke- said. Also, 1994 was when the process, begun under Nixon, of the conversion of conservative (and, not to put too fine a point on it, racist) white Southern voters from the Democratic Party to the once-despised Republican Party was completed. When LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act he said, “We [the Dems] have lost the South for a generation.” Right he was. Look at the map of “red” and “blue” states and note what color Dixie is.

The best and most comprehensive account I’ve yet read of the rise of conservatism in America is The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004). The authors are British, and have the advantage of looking at the whole thing with an outsider’s detachment. Their thesis is that the late conservative ascendancy results partly from America’s uniquely conservative political culture, and partly from a process of conservative organizing, and alliances and synergies between different conservative factions (economic libertarians, traditionalists, religious conservatives, big-business interests, and foreign-policy neoconservatives), which has been going on steadily since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign.

Yet, the authors are at pains to point out, modern American “conservatism” means something rather different than what earlier generations understood the word to mean. From their introduction:

At any rate, this is a formula for electoral success: Churchill’s elitist Burkean Tory conservatism could never have had a broad appeal to the masses, but modern American conservatism does have a populist appeal. It gets just-getting-by folks to support a party run by and for the rich and the corporations – because that party also stands for traditional moral and social values.

From “Passion of the Right: The Uses of Persecution,” by David Mulcahey, in the October 25, 2004 issue of In These Times

Tough act to follow.

While I think Brain and the sources he quotes have the right of it, we cannot ignore the fact that the long, non-competitive nature of Congress (the House in particular) lead to corruption amongst the leadership and there was a point in the early '90’s when every other news story was another Congressional scandal. This, in addition to long dark Recession of the late Reagan/Bush I years, made for a very powerful anti-incumbent sentiment (which continues to last to this day, at least rhetorically – although I doubt you’ll believe me, Beltway insider that I am). Since the Dems were in power, they were the ones that suffered the brunt of this force, regardless of whether they had engendered its underlying causes or not.


The '94 ‘revolution’ succeeded for several reasons.

First- As BrainGlutton points out, the South has been trending more and more Republican. However, his statement of why it works (i.e., racism) doesn’t take into account that the South of the 1900-1964 era produced Democrats who were nigh-indistinguishable from Republicans except on the race issue; the South has always been a much more conservative area, and the switch to the Republicans is more of a shift to the natural party to represent them rather than being in an uneasy coalition with the liberal wing.

This means that the Democratic ‘control’ of Congress was actually far less stable than it appeared strictly from party lines- many Southern congressmen would vote with the Republicans on a regular basis, but stayed Democrats because a Republican couldn’t get elected dogcatcher in their state.

Second- From '88 to '94, the Democratic leadership and majority in the House was socked by a series of scandals. Jim Wright was excorciated for a book deal which may have been a bribe. The House banking scandal- where it was found that Congressmen were writing bad checks with no penalties- seriously hurt the image of the Democrats in Congress. And Dan Rostenkowski was then indicted for abuse of franking priveledges. So, by the '94 election, the Democrats in control of the House were seen as inept and/or crooked at a level previous reserved for occupants of the executive branch.
Third- The general preference of the American populace is for a divided government: one where control of the Presidency and the Congress are split, so that nothing too extreme happens. '92 saw both Congress and the Presidency pass into the hands of the Democrats, and the results were not something most Americans were happy with. As Clinton was not up for re-election in '94, many Americans turned to putting Republicans in charge of Congress in order to balance the government.
Fourth- Newt Gingrich organized a campaign to get Republicans elected to Congress that was extremely effective, and very focused, to which the Democrats responded with general confusion and apathy.

I’d also add the failure of Clinton’s health care plan hurt Democrats running in 1994. Also, the signing of the assault weapons ban hurt some rural Democrats who were ‘targeted’ by the NRA.

Don’t count Bill Clinton out as a force for destroying the dems nationally, just by being himself. Clinton was not only a republican at heart, he was a Reagan Republican.

Richard Nixon was left of clinton on virtually ever issue. (the horror, the horror…)

Yeah, remember Dick’s lefty policy of bombing the fuck out of possible Commies in South-East Asia?

Hardly. Would Reagan have tried for a national health care program that would cover all uninsured Americans? You are correct that Nixon was very much to the left of the Republican Party today.

Johnson started the war. Nixon just screwed up in not realizing the US couldn’t win.

This could be true, but I don’t think there’s much evidence for it. What is more likely, IMO, is that the country is very evenly divided such that a very small percentage of split-ticket voters decide elections in many precincts. Plus, of course, there’s always other stuff going on in local elections – I live in the very left-leaning Montgomery County, MD, which until the '02 election was represented by a GOP Congresswoman, Connie Morella. Rep. Morella was in the extreme left wing of her party, was well-liked, and had good constituent services, which kept her in her seat for years, being supported (I’m sure) by many folks who’d never voted for any other Republican in their whole lives.


Quick question: You’ve “read” Wooldridge’s & Micklethwait’s book, referred to it as the “best and most comprehensive account” of the rise of conservatism in the US and still attribute it to “what spoke- said” about a propaganda machine?

There’s very little in their thesis that supports the existence of a right wing propaganda machine. In fact they examine the all too popular belief by urban progressives that the religious heartland of the US are just a bunch of ignorant, easily fooled, gullible morons who live in fly over country and don’t know what’s good for them. Their example that first comes to mind: More people in the city of San Francisco have dogs than have children. It’s no wonder that in a nation this vast, with such varied interests - you’re bound to have a large difference in opinion.

Remember when Nixon ordered the military to allow openly gay recruits? Or when he stood up to the NRA, and incurred their wrath? What about his policy of increasing tobacco taxes to help pay for health care?

I should point out that the South trending Republican is not just the result of appeals to racism (though that plays a part).

There is a very strog “culture of macho” in the South and in the mountain states, and the Republicans are very effective at appealing to this culture and at painting their male Democratic opponents as somehow less macho.

That’s not what I said at all. I simply agreed with spoke- that a Republican propaganda machine exists; I did not attribute that information to him, nor to Right Nation. But I could have done the latter. Right Nation gives a very detailed account of the Republican propaganda machine, and who funds it, who works in it, and how it operates in foundations, think-tanks, media and academia.

True dat! Just ask Max Cleland! :mad: :mad: :mad:

From the “Emergin Democratic Minority,” by Michael Lind, in The Financial Times, November 8, 2002 –

I was more thinking of nixons guaranteed national income, epa, whathaveyou.

I don’t think fatbill has anything to blush about when it comes to realpolitik as compared with tricky dicky. (see, for example, vaporized aspirin factories and incinerated waco hostages.)

we have gotten the scumbag government we deserve,.

that’s the horror part.

Where is the info on Right Nation. I looked it up but couldn’t find anything.

It’s a book, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004).

Thanks Brian, I see now you listed that in your initial post.

Here’s just one more piston in the Rep machine. K street in Washingtom DC is basically booty for securing both houses and for the creation of such a dominant horse (machine). Subsequently, there has been a very concerted and organized effort to turn the town over to Republicans. All appointments are going over to the Rep party now.

"WASHINGTON – The hottest speculation in Washington isn’t over who will fill a possible Supreme Court vacancy, but who will take over Jack Valenti’s perch atop the Motion Picture Association of America - and the buzz is narrowing to three Republicans, all present or former members of Congress.

Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana says he’s running for reelection, but insiders say he might yet be open to the top lobby job in Washington, should Mr. Valenti, a Democrat, step down. The others mentioned are former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Rep. David Dreier of California.

It’s a sign that the ties between the GOP-controlled Congress and the lobby shops on K Street are getting tighter - with significant consequences for issues ranging from tax policy to healthcare…"

“…The trend stems in part from expectations - by both politicians and industry groups - that Republican will retain control of Congress for years to come. In that scenario, K Street can be a fount of money and ideas for Congress, while Congress can supply a stream of experienced and well-connected former lawmakers.”