There is an old line that goes: “You can’t make this stuff up,” which seems an apt description of the current Republican-run House of Representatives. In this Election Report, voting and elections expert Rhodes Cook argues that throughout the year, the House has been living in an alternate universe of sorts that makes the chamber’s often tempestuous past look like sober steadiness.

Document Outline
The Truman Example
The Backdrop in 2024

Dysfunction has been evident since the beginning of the new GOP Congress in January 2023, when it took the House 15 ballots to elect the heir apparent to the speakership, Kevin McCarthy of California. In more than 150 years it had it never taken the House so long to elect a speaker. In early October 2023, the House turned around and ousted McCarthy, the first time a speaker had ever been shunted aside in the midst of a Congress.

To be sure, only a handful of dissident Republicans, unhappy that the GOP leadership was not taking a harder line with Democrats, were involved on each occasion. And because of a compromise by McCarthy with critics in order to win the position, it took only one House member to file a motion to vacate the speakership. Democrats stayed on the sidelines, voting en masse not to bail out McCarthy. The overall impression was an unsightly mess on the Republicans’ watch.

As late October approached, the GOP had not found a speaker and no end to the impasse was in sight. As a consequence, floor activity in the House had ground to a halt, against the backdrop of increasing international tensions and government funding problems. Republicans were increasingly left with the image of the gang that couldn’t govern.

The Truman Example

A big question for 2024: Will Republican House candidates pay a price at the ballot box for the party’s historic implosion?

They very well could. Democrats have been able to successfully run against a Republican Congress before, most notably in 1948, when President Harry Truman made the “do-nothing” Republican 80th Congress a foil for his feisty, and unexpectedly successful, bid to retain the White House.

Largely unknown when he took office upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in April 1945, Truman enjoyed a political honeymoon that lasted through the end of World War II that summer. But after that, his star faded quickly, as the perception took hold that the short, bespectacled former Missouri senator was in over his depth as president, particularly when compared to the legendary FDR.

Truman’s presidential approval rating in the Gallup Poll fell to 33% by the fall of 1946, and Republicans that November won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in nearly 20 years. Critics of the president were not kind. “I’m Just Mild about Harry” went one ditty (paraphrasing the title of the incumbent’s campaign song). “To err is Truman,” went another presidential criticism of the day.

It was widely expected that with Congress gone Republican, Truman would be the next Democrat to be ousted when he sought a full term as president in 1948. His approval rating in the Gallup Poll rested at 40% or less throughout much of the election year. And his campaign was complicated by third-party defections on both the left and right flanks of the Democratic coalition.

Former Vice President Henry Wallace led the newly formed Progressive Party, while Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina carried the banner of the Dixie-based States’ Rights Democrats (or “Dixiecrats” as they were popularly known). It was assumed that both third-party entries would seriously undermine Truman, with Wallace siphoning away votes in battleground states and Thurmond taking electoral votes across the once solid Democratic South.

To most political observers, Truman looked doomed. The big question was not whether Republican standard-bearer Thomas E. Dewey would win the election, but by how much. Going into late June, when Republicans held their national convention, Dewey led by 11 percentage points in the Gallup Poll. In the first Gallup survey after the Democratic convention in mid-July, Dewey was still up by 11 points.

But Truman had created the conditions for a comeback with a fiery acceptance speech at the Democratic convention which pilloried the Republican Congress. He labelled it as obstructionist, and called for a special session of Congress to convene in late July where the GOP could pass legislation on matters such as education, housing, and civil rights that they ostensibly favored in their party platform.

Truman’s anti-Congress attack effectively put beleaguered Democrats on the offense, especially with Republicans acting as though they had the race in hand and could stay above the fray. To be sure, most political pundits felt the same way. One famous pollster of the day, Elmo Roper, suspended his polling in early September, arguing that Dewey had the election locked up.

Meanwhile, Truman took to the rails, crisscrossing the country by train. He spoke not just in cities but in the small towns and hamlets of rural America. As the fall unfolded, crowds grew in size and enthusiasm, and with his passionate, “give ‘em hell” oratorical style, Truman connected with many of them.

By late September, Dewey’s lead in the Gallup Poll was down to 6 points; and when Gallup stopped polling in late October, Dewey’s lead stood at 4 points. Political observers acknowledged Truman’s success in rousing voters, but few abandoned their predictions that Dewey would win.

Even Election Night, the results were hard for many to accept. The front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune was emblazoned with the fabled headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” But the actual vote count emphatically said otherwise. Truman won 303 electoral votes to 189 for Dewey, and 39 for Thurmond. The Democrat’s popular vote margin was nearly 2.2 million. The president carried 28 states to 16 for Dewey and 4 for Thurmond.

Outside the Dewey-dominated Northeast, it was a Truman rout. In the South, he carried all but four Deep South states that went for Thurmond. He had the upper hand in the industrial Midwest (losing only Indiana and Michigan to Dewey), and west of the Mississippi River prevailed in all but a quartet of Great Plains states (from Kansas north to the Dakotas) and Oregon on the West coast.

For good measure, Democrats won both chambers of Congress, gaining 75 seats in the House and nine in the Senate.

The Backdrop in 2024

At the time of this report, it is more than a year until the 2024 election. The presidential race between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump (the Republican front-runner) appears neck and neck, as do the contests for control of the Republican House and the Democratic Senate. (Unlike 1948, control of Congress is currently divided.)

Some independent presidential candidates of note are already in the race: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine activist; and Cornel West, a liberal academician who formerly taught at Princeton and Harvard and is now at the Union Theological Seminary.

Kennedy, a son of the fabled senator and nephew of a president, and West seem to have some potential to draw votes from the right and left sides of the political spectrum, respectively. And then there is “No Labels,” a more centrist operation, which is weighing the idea of fielding a third party candidate in 2024. The early thinking is that the presence of Kennedy and West, and (possibly) “No Labels” on the ballot would work against Biden.

Yet, ultimately, that may not entirely be the case. The Libertarian Party will be offering a national ticket again in 2024 and they are closer in thinking to the Republicans. The Libertarian presidential ticket in 2016 drew nearly 4.5 million votes, and close to 2 million in 2020.

In November 2023, Biden will be 81 years old and will almost certainly lack the gusto that Truman, 17 years his junior in 1948, was able to bring to his presidential campaign. But Truman’s was a campaign of continued attack on the GOP Congress. Biden’s response to the Republican House these days has been largely to stand back and let their actions (or inaction) speak for themselves, with the hope that next year it will be an effective issue in the Democrats’ arsenal.

In the meantime, the vote for speaker continued, with the liberal cable network, MSNBC, showing a running clock from time to time on the bottom corner of its screen. It indicated how many days, hours, minutes, and seconds the House has been without a permanent leader. As the Trump-endorsed Jim Jordan was losing his third straight vote for the job on October 20, the MSNBC clock read: 16 days, 19 hours, 00 minutes, and 00 seconds.

But just when the speakership battle looked as though it would go on and on indefinitely, on October 25 the House Republicans quickly coalesced behind a little-known congressmember from Louisiana, Mike Johnson.

Johnson, who is only 51 years old and four terms deep into his House career, was chosen as the new GOP speaker without a dissenting Republican vote. Both affable in nature and friendly to Trump and his "Make America Great Again" (MAGA) crowd, Johnson was low on the House political ladder when he was chosen. Will he be a good enough choice to help reelect the GOP House in 2024? With Republicans, almost certainly; with Democrats, almost certainly not. The final word is with independent voters, as is so often the case in American politics. Stay tuned.

Rhodes Cook 10/23/23

Document Citation
Can Democrats make GOP house a winning issue? It's happened before. (2023).
Document ID: electrpts-2165-121442-3024153
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