The Burden of One-Party Government
As Donald Trump may soon learn, presidents whose party also controls Congress often wind up feuding with their ostensible allies
By David Greenberg
The excitement that many Republicans have experienced this week—and the corresponding dread felt by many Democrats—isn’t just a product of President Donald Trump’s blusterous personality and cyclonic path to the White House. It also arises because, for the first time since 2011, one party will now control the executive branch and both chambers of Congress.
We are so used to blaming Washington’s failures on partisan gridlock that the prospect of three horses pulling in tandem seems to promise radical change, for better or worse. Certainly, the most productive administrations of the past century—those of Woodrow Wilson,Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson—have featured presidents who were adept at leading Congress and whose parties enjoyed large majorities for at least a couple of years.
But controlling the White House and Congress is no guarantee of success. As often as not, presidents who have enjoyed one-party rule have found themselves at war with their fellow partisans on Capitol Hill. Like the prospectors in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” who finally find their long-sought cache of gold only to turn on one another, so party leaders who attain united power frequently wind up quarreling and squandering their opportunity. Inexperience, institutional conflicts, ideological rifts, personal animus—all have served to fracture parties in power that might otherwise have worked their will in Washington.
Consider the case of 1953. The wildly popular Dwight Eisenhower had won the presidency for the Republicans for the first time since 1928, and his coattails brought in congressional majorities. Only twice before in U.S. history had a party shut out of power claimed the presidency and both chambers of Congress in one stroke. The Republicans’ margins were slim, but then as today, GOP leaders were giddy at the thought of rolling back what they called the “creeping socialism” of the preceding 20 years.
On some issues, GOP stalwarts got what they wanted: tax breaks, privatization of atomic energy, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway on terms favorable to private developers.
But on others—including the big issue of the day, foreign policy—Republicans clashed.
Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Eisenhower had run for president in large part because he feared that his party would to return to its prewar isolationism. He had faced down a nomination challenge from Sen. Robert Taft, who had been an America Firster before World War II and opposed the creation of NATO after it. By contrast, Eisenhower shared the belief—then more widely held among Democrats—that the countries of the world depended on one another for security and that the U.S. must lead the postwar order.
The earliest fights between the two GOP camps came over appointments. During the campaign, Eisenhower had muted his criticisms of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose reckless accusations of Communist influence were then at their zenith. McCarthy didn’t reward Ike’s restraint. On Eisenhower’s second day in office, McCarthy used a Senate hold to block the appointment of Walter Bedell Smith, Ike’s wartime chief of staff, as undersecretary of state. McCarthy did likewise when Eisenhower named Harvard President James Conant as high commissioner to Germany. And when Eisenhower nominated Charles “Chip” Bohlen, a distinguished Foreign Service officer, as ambassador to Moscow, Senate conservatives mounted a full-scale assault.
Bohlen got through, but only after a bruising fight.
On policy, Ohio Sen. John Bricker, another conservative leader, championed a constitutional amendment to limit the president’s power to make treaties. The so-called Bricker Amendment was anathema to internationalists, but almost all congressional Republicans backed it, as did enough Democrats to ensure passage. An irate Eisenhower publicly warred with Bricker, who was backed by conservative interest groups from the Chamber of Commerce to the American Legion. Eventually Ike reached across the aisle, enlisting the Democratic Senate minority leader, Lyndon Johnson, to devise an elaborate strategy to defeat the Bricker Amendment on the Senate floor.
Congressional Republicans fought with the new president in other areas too—including foreign aid, trade and immigration. Eisenhower’s nominee as chief justice of the U.S., Republican Gov. Earl Warren of California, was assailed by Sen. Barry Goldwater as a socialist.
In the 1954 midterms, the Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress—which Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward Smith calls “a blessing in disguise.” Ike worked well with LBJ and the new Democratic House speaker, Sam Rayburn, and grew so fed up with his party’s leaders that he complained later in his presidency, “I don’t know why anyone should be a member of the Republican Party.”
When John Kennedy entered the White House in 1961, it was the Democrats’ turn to bicker. The party’s majorities in both houses of Congress rested on a sizable bloc of Southerners, many of whom were at least as conservative as the average Republican. Meanwhile, liberals were eager for change and tired of compromising with the Southerners. Kennedy got it from both ends.
The most acute problem was civil rights. Kennedy had eked out his 1960 victory thanks in part to a phone call he made to Coretta Scott King when her husband, Martin, was in jail—a clarion signal about whose side the candidate was on in the great fight of the day. But in his first years as president, JFK worried that antagonizing the Southern barons would cost him support for his economic plans and other projects. When Kennedy sent a modest civil-rights bill to Capitol Hill in 1962, Democratic Majority Leader Michael Mansfield told him that it would never pass. It died by filibuster.
Kennedy didn’t seriously push civil-rights legislation until the 1963 Birmingham crisis. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference had launched a campaign to desegregate the Alabama city, which culminated in May 1963 when police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor used attack dogs and high-pressure fire hoses against protesters, resulting in gruesome images broadcast world-wide. The brutality, along with mounting liberal ire, persuaded Kennedy to send a meaningful desegregation bill to Capitol Hill.
Kennedy knew, as his civil-rights aide Burke Marshall said, that the bill would consume Congress and render almost all other major legislation impossible for the rest of the year. Johnson, now vice president, warned Kennedy’s trusted aide Ted Sorensen that JFK would be “cut to pieces with this.”
Nor was the resistance of Southern Democrats the only obstacle. At one point, following the September church bombing in Birmingham that killed four black girls, Rep. Emanuel Celler of Brooklyn and other liberals so toughened up the bill that the administration feared its whole legislative strategy would unravel. The bill had barely gotten out of committee when Kennedy was assassinated in November.
Kennedy faced opposition within his own party on other issues. His main 1960 campaign pledge had been to “get America moving again” after the anemic economy of Eisenhower’s second term. After much division within his administration, Kennedy arrived at a plan in January 1963 to cut taxes and try to spark employment growth. But as the historian Irving Bernstein noted, “the Ways and Means Committee moved with glacial speed.” The committee’s fiscally conservative chairman, Rep. Wilbur Mills of Arkansas, essentially rewrote the bill, gutting Kennedy’s most cherished proposals. Like JFK’s civil-rights bill, his economic-growth legislation would also fail to win passage until after Nov. 22, 1963.
One-party rule proved no less frustrating for the Democrats in 1977. Even more than Eisenhower and Kennedy, Jimmy Carter was hamstrung by his inability to coordinate with his congressional party-mates. A virtual unknown only a year before his election, the onetime Georgia governor had run and won on his outsider status. Meanwhile, after eight years of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Democratic congressional leaders were eager to pass their agenda—and suspicious of the pious, Southern, Washington-bashing interloper in the White House.
Sparks flew immediately. The president’s “Georgia mafia” struck Democrats on the Hill as arrogant; the Carter gang looked on Congress’s power brokers as decadent, long in the tooth and, in the words of Carter pollster Patrick Caddell, “as antiquated and anachronistic a group as are conservative Republicans.”
Mr. Carter made matters worse with rookie mistakes in treating his ostensible allies. House Speaker Tip O’Neill found Mr. Carter’s stripped-down style disrespectful—feting members of Congress, for example, with paper plates. The president also neglected to tell legislators when he was appearing in their home districts, causing embarrassment and wasting opportunities to bank easy political points.
More significant than the symbolic slights were the legislative struggles. Mr. Carter took a dim view of congressional liberals’ expansive Great Society visions and free-spending ways, but he had promised a $50 tax rebate to every American—an economically dubious gimmick with high public-relations value. After the rebate passed the House, however, Mr. Carter abandoned it, leaving legislators looking like fools. Making matters worse, the White House eliminated $5 billion in funding for dams and other water projects in an early appropriations bill, in the name of budget cutting and environmental protection. But many of these projects resided in the districts of influential Democrats, and Mr. Carter had put them on the chopping block without warning.
In 1977, the president called on Congress to vote on the unpopular Panama Canal Treaties, which ensured the canal’s neutrality (meaning that the Soviet Union could use it) and gradually transferred sovereignty from the U.S. to Panama. Most Democrats felt obliged to support the president, but they resented having to walk the plank for a deal that would bring them little benefit.
The final straw may have been Mr. Carter’s rejection of a universal health-care plan pushed by Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. The president first delayed action on the bill, then backed a more modest plan that relied on private insurance. At one point, he told Kennedy that he didn’t plan to make health-care reform a priority at all. Eventually, Kennedy would challenge Mr. Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination—the ultimate expression of the rift.
Photo: Alex Brandon/Associated Press
Among more recent presidents who have held both houses, Bill Clinton,George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all found securing support from their own parties harder than they imagined. Mr. Clinton’s health-care plan went down to defeat in 1994 not just because Republicans lined up against it but also because congressional Democrats overreached and failed to deliver. Both liberal and moderate Democrats insisted on provisions that the other side couldn’t abide, leaving Mr. Clinton with a compromise plan that no one wanted to rally behind.
Mr. Bush, for his part, began his second term pledging to spend the political capital from his 2004 victory. But his ambitious plan to partially privatize Social Security ran aground when key Republicans—notably House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas—balked.
Mr. Obama got a lot of bills through a Democratic Congress in the first two years of his presidency, but he too fought with his own party’s leaders—both on his health-care bill and the 2009 stimulus bill. At one point during the drafting of the stimulus bill, the president was on speakerphone with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, trying to exhort the Democratic troops—leading Mrs. Pelosi to press the phone’s mute button so that her congressional team could get back to work without his noticing.
What about Donald Trump? He may well end up tangling as much with his own party as with his Democratic opposition. In his campaign, he badmouthed or alienated most leading Republicans in Washington, and though some wounds have been patched, many more still fester.
Early on, Mr. Trump called out House leaders for a plan to defang their ethics committee, quickly scuttling the move. The Russian hacking scandal, which Mr. Trump has largely dismissed, has led key senators such as John McCain to support congressional investigations. And many members of the House’s Freedom Caucus have vowed to oppose Mr. Trump’s plans for infrastructure spending.
Mr. Trump lacks, too, not only the overwhelming majorities that would insulate him from some intraparty dissent but also the leadership qualities that his most successful predecessors exhibited. He has neither Wilson’s deep understanding of government, nor Roosevelt’s easygoing charm, nor Johnson’s years of experience mastering the byways of the Senate.
But the incentives for cooperation are strong. Mr. Trump and the Republicans must realize that their window to enact significant change is small and that the best way to extend it is to score some big victories early on. For all their divisions, they have every incentive to compromise and collaborate.
Of course, so did Eisenhower and Robert Taft.
Mr. Greenberg is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author, most recently, of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency,” now out in paperback from Norton.