The implications of the 2010 mid-term elections are still evolving. What has become clear at this juncture is that there is more at stake in the 2012 Presidential elections than we have witnessed in several generations.
For starters, the Democrats were somewhat isolated from a disaster in the United States Senate similar to the firestorm that struck in the House of Representatives because of the lack of incumbent Democratic Senators exposed in the 2010 races. Such will not be the case in 2012 as there will be 21 Democratic Senate seats up for grabs as compared to only 10 seats for the Republicans. Thus to the Republican strategists it may appear that they are treating this as merely “halftime” in a contest where they have scored a big lead. A similar effort in the second half — the 2012 Congressional and Presidential elections — will, they feel, close the deal and set the Republicans up for a long-term reign. To understand what is at stake one need look no further than the delicate balance on the Supreme Court and the even more delicate state of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s health to understand how a Senate majority, in its confirmation power, can impact such things as the ongoing culture wars for years to come.
What does history have to say to the Democrats? All Democrats should take the time to study the sequence of wave elections culminating in the 1946 mid-term elections and the 1948 Presidential and Congressional elections. In 1946 the nation, weary from 16 years of Democratic progressivism and the all encompassing New Deal, decided to catch its breath and give the Republicans a chance to run things. Harry Truman, who had succeeded the late Franklin Roosevelt, clearly lacked the charisma that had kept Roosevelt in office. Democratic accomplishments notwithstanding the 1946 elections saw the Republicans take 55 seats from the Democrats in the Unites States House of Representatives and they took the Senate for good measure. The rationale of the voters in turning to the GOP was startling similar to that afoot today. Their campaign approach was to create an overarching concern on the part of the voters for the huge expansion of government programs and the cost that they would surely incur. The Republicans pledged to resist big government liberalism (progressivism) at every turn.
By convention time in 1948 the Democratic Party was still morose and licking its wounds. A dower, but ever feisty, Harry Truman decided to “go for broke.” Truman and the Democrats fired the opening series of salvos in the modern Civil Rights movement knowing full well what the reaction of the decades-old Southern Democratic base would be. The Civil Rights plank in the Democratic platform was so strong that it led to the walkout of the Southern Democrats and the formation of the short-lived Dixiecrats. Truman underscored his strong support for the Democratic platform at every stop of a 31,000-mile “whistle stop” train tour. His renewed, no-holds-barred vigor earned him the nickname “Give ‘Em Hell Harry.” The results in 1948 showed that Truman upset Dewey, and the Democrats took back the Senate and 75 House seats reverted to the Democrats. This election defied the conventional wisdom that the Democrats could not win without the votes of Southerners who defected in droves to the Dixiecrats.
With the 2010 election results now in the books and the 63 seat Democratic loss to the Republicans clearly in mind, are the Democrats prepared to pick themselves up and shore up the prospects of an incumbent President? A more pertinent question facing the Democratic leadership is this one — Are the Democrats prepared to accept the Republican invitation to, in their minds, capitulate as a sign of willingness to cooperate, or will they follow the Harry Truman example of the late 1940s and “go for broke?”
Early indications are that there are those in the majority of Democrats who advocate the defiant route. No better example exists than the party’s decision to elect soon-to-be former speaker Nancy Pelosi as minority leader. In spite of the Republican glee at these prospects, the majority of House Democrats feel that Pelosi has been stunning in her accomplishments during the first two years of the Obama administration. Furthermore, Pelosi is said to be the Democrats top fundraiser to the tune of several million dollars a month. While this approach will do a lot to satisfy the left side of the party it does so at the expense of the dwindling numbers of more conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats.
Recent opinion polls have exhibited a decided uptick in President Obama’s approval ratings. An NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll of last week showed that the President had drawn even at 47 percent in his approval ratings. The crucial decision to be made is whether or not Obama and the Democrats will bite the bullet and come out strongly in favor of a continued progressive agenda and defend the momentous accomplishments of his first two years. Just as in 1948 the conservative South in 2010 is gone for the time being as far as the Democrats are concerned.
With an eye toward 2012, the question to be answered is: Can the Democrats engage in their old-style building of a coalition of minorities and labor to reclaim a sufficient number of independents to recover territory lost in 2010?
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.