History Lesson

When Republicans Last Ruled the Earth

Ike couldn’t tame the ‘53-’55 GOP House and Senate. Will Dubya do any better?

In a few weeks, the presidency and both chambers of Congress will be under Republican control for the first time since 1953-55. The Republicans’ slim majority in the 107th Congress—221-212-2 in the House; 50-50 in the Senate (with the vice president casting the tiebreaker)—echoes the spread in the 83rd Congress, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and the GOP ran both the House (221-213-1) and Senate (48-47-1). The millennial hat trick has some Republicans eyeing a promised land of conservative redemption. “I’ve been waiting all my life to have a Republican president and a Republican Congress,” gushed Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. If 1953-55 is any example, though, Gramm may not enjoy the salvation of his fantasies.

Needless to say, it’s not the ‘50s anymore—the Cold War is over, and the ‘60s revolutionized our social landscape—so comparisons to the 83rd Congress go only so far. And yet in both cases, the GOP elected a conservative president who wavered between following the lead of his party’s ideologues and trying to save them from their own excesses. In both cases the president used a seductive slogan (Ike’s “” versus Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism”) to mask tensions between the unreconstructed rank-and-file’s reactionary agenda and the wider culture’s wish to leave liberal attainments in place. In 1955, the Republicans relinquished control of Congress after a session marked by internecine fighting, a farrago of pro-business deals and anti-communist calamities, and an ultimately slender record of accomplishment. Bush and the 107th Congress should beware.

Entering the 1952 elections, Republicans held neither the White House nor the House nor the Senate, and just twice before (in 1800 and 1840) had a party totally shut out of power won the trifecta in a single year. But the GOP pulled off the feat that fall, for the first time since 1930. Like the Phil Gramms of today, those Republicans were thirsting to exercise power. Their only obstacle to doing so, it turned out, was their new leader.

On the issues dear to the Old Guard—questions of private versus public interest—Eisenhower did fall in line behind his party’s stalwarts. President and Congress alike endorsed the dictum of Secretary of Defense Charlie Wilson: that what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Ike backed Congress’ controversial decision to cede to the states (and effectively to business) the $300 billion worth of natural resources (mainly oil) that lay underwater along American shores. Ike also joined with his partymates to pass the Atomic Energy Act, which allowed private industry to produce atomic power, and the St. Lawrence Seaway Act, which green-lighted construction of the canal under terms favorable to private developers. On taxes, too, Ike and the Republicans (along with some Democrats) cut corporate and excise taxes and handed out a bevy of new deductions.

If Eisenhower supported Congress on economic issues because he shared their pro-business outlook, he followed them on questions of anti-communism because of the dicey politics of the issue. Ike’s unwillingness to oppose Sen. Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism in general brought the nation some of its most shameful moments. In his first two years, Eisenhower tightened the federal “loyalty” program to weed out “security risks,” allowed the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and agreed to revoke the security clearance of Manhattan Project physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. He also signed into law the Communist Control Act, which denied to the Communist Party “all rights, privileges and immunities attendant upon legal bodies.” Of course, the bill’s prime movers—enthusiasts of bipartisanship take note—were Sen. Hubert Humphrey and other liberal Democrats who feared being tarred as “soft on communism.” Only in 1954 did Ike begin inching away from McCarthy, and when he did he incurred the wrath of the party’s hard right (extreme anti-communists started calling Ike a pinko). Conveniently for Eisenhower, McCarthy soon self-destructed.

On other issues, however, Eisenhower often found his partymates more nettlesome than the opposition, not unlike recent presidents whose parties have controlled Congress (Jimmy Carter in 1977-1981; Bill Clinton in 1993-1995). The main area of trouble was foreign policy, where Eisenhower aggressively tried to reshape his party. A belief that the world’s nations depended on one another for security had first emboldened Ike to seek the Republican nomination in 1952. (He feared that Sen. Robert Taft, an isolationist, would lead the nation into retreat and the party into ruin.) And once in office he sought to steer his party a new course rather than following Congress’ lead.

But over foreign aid, trade, and immigration, Congress fought with the president. In each case, Ike favored a liberalized program, and in each case his party’s isolationists forced him to scale back his plans. Nonetheless, in agreeing to compromises on these issues, Eisenhower ultimately won victories. In the process, he converted many isolationists into at least part-time internationalists and thus built the beginnings of a Republican consensus behind military and economic engagement with the world. Engineering this shift marked probably his greatest success as president.

The Republicans fought among themselves on other issues, too, particularly Social Security. Anti-New Dealers in Congress wanted to eliminate the program, which they saw as “creeping socialism.” But Ike again led his party into the modern age, expanding benefits to cover farm workers and domestic laborers—thereby correcting the racial bias that had kept the large numbers of blacks in these jobs from receiving benefits. Ultimately, he got sizable majorities of his own party to sign on to his reforms. Finally, in one last area—perhaps the most important of all—Eisenhower overcame conservative resistance to appoint California Gov. Earl Warren as chief justice of the United States.

In the 1954 elections, the Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress, leaving the 83rd Congress with few accomplishments to look back on. Whether the 107th Congress can achieve more is impossible to predict. Like Ike, George W. Bush will face an ideological Congress that intends to offer advantages for business. He too will almost certainly come under pressure to place new constraints on civil rights and civil liberties, whether on abortion or religious freedom. And he too will confront a renewed isolationism within his own ranks that will demand farsighted leadership. Eisenhower, the record shows, pulled off only a passable job of resisting his party’s extremism and guiding it toward a forward-looking agenda. In that sense, he set a relatively low bar for Bush to jump. Of course, Bush has gone lower before.