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Will history be on George W's side in 2002?
By Paul M. Weyrich
Karl Rove and others at the White House who examine polls seem to have a permanent case of the grins. After nine months in office, their president has numbers that are off the charts. Many of the voters who cast their ballots for Vice President Al Gore for President have stopped saying, "Gosh, I wish he had won the election." On the contrary, Bush, who won one of the closest elections in U.S. history, has made believers out of many who were convinced he wasn't up to the job.
In a little over a year though this president and his party will be facing mid-term elections. Even Republicans in the House, who were nervous before September 11th have relaxed a bit because they are looking at the same polls that the White House strategists have been scrutinizing. Surely, the electorate rewards leaders who rally the people, right?
The record suggests otherwise. Abraham Lincoln was an inspirational leader for the Union as he embarked on the War Between the States. He had been swept into office in 1860 and had solid majorities in both Houses of Congress. When the 1862 mid-term election returns had come in, Lincoln found that his majorities had nearly evaporated. Surveying the incoming Congress, Senator Ben Wade of Ohio told Lincoln: "We're on the road to Hell and a mile away."
How about the legendary FDR? In 1940 he had won an unprecedented third term and swept large majorities in Congress with him. On December 7, 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. A day later Franklin Delano Roosevelt rallied the nation, calling the attack "A date which will live in infamy...."
Overnight the nation, which had shown strong isolationist tendencies, was transformed in favor of the war. Charles Lindbergh, who was a national hero because of his non-stop flight to Paris in 1927, resigned his position as a leader of the America First movement and let it be known he was ready to serve his country. Support for the isolationist position had been so strong in 1940 that FDR was forced to give a famous speech in which he declared that the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, hated war and that he himself hated war. He suggested if he were re-elected there would be no participation in the war in Europe.
Yet that sentiment dried up overnight after Pearl Harbor. Polls showed that FDR had the same kind of numbers that Bush has now. Yet less than 11 months later FDR faced mid-term elections. He was shocked because Republicans nearly won control of the House of Representatives. Republicans also made substantial gains in the Senate as well but Democrats were so entrenched there that control wasn't threatened. FDR could not believe that his rallying the nation to fight the Nazis was rewarded by the election of mostly Taft Republicans.
Before the war, Ohio's Senator Robert A. Taft (the grandfather of the current Governor of Ohio), had been one of the leaders of the America First movement in Congress. Despite the fact that he had first been first elected to the Senate in 1938, he nonetheless had been nominated for president at the 1940 GOP convention. Taft didn't win, but because of that sentiment and the elections in 1942, he was eventually propelled into Republican leadership in the Senate and nearly won the presidential nomination in l952.
Or take the case of Harry Truman. He was an accidental president. Henry Wallace had been FDR's Vice President after the 1940 elections but he proved to be such a left wing troublemaker during his time in office that FDR's advisors convinced him that Wallace had to be dropped. Truman was selected precisely because he was seen as loyal and not someone with his own agenda. FDR died in early 1945 leaving Truman to run the nation. It was Truman who made the monumental decision to drop the A Bomb on Japan. Japan surrendered far sooner than that nation would have if the ground war had been allowed to drag on.
The public rallied around Truman, the president who presided over the momentous V-J day celebrations. Yet a little over a year later Truman faced the mid-term elections of 1946. Republicans blew away the Democrats, making the largest gains ever in the 20th Century. Truman was faced with an 80th Congress that overrode his vetoes and passed, among other things, the Taft-Hartley labor reform act.
Was the electorate grateful for Truman's courageous decision, which saved countless American lives? No way. But if Truman was shocked at the electorate then what do you think Winston Churchill felt? This man carried Great Britain on his back during its darkest hour. Yet the first chance the electorate had to vote, right after the war ended in 1945, they threw the inspirational Churchill and the Conservative Party out on their ears in favor of the Labour Party led by the colorless Clement Atlee.
So, look at that record. Then consider the fate that Bush Number 41 suffered a year later after his numbers had gone through the roof because of the Gulf War. Now, consider the fact that the United States could still be in a recession next year. White House staffers may be savoring the current poll numbers. If I were one of those staffers, however, I would be scrambling to find ways to reverse history. Bill Clinton did it in 1998. If history was a gauge Clinton and the Democrats should have lost big time. Every other president in the 20th Century had taken a pounding in the sixth year of an eight-year cycle. Not Clinton. His party won five seats in the House and held the Republicans even in the Senate.
George Bush is by far the better man. If Clinton can go against the odds, shouldn't Bush be able to do even better?
Paul M. Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.
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