Our oldest rivalry

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

The two-party system has prevailed for 160 years — since 1861 when the first Republican was elected. Ever wonder who's ahead in our longest-running national rivalry? What's your guess? 

A dead heat? I'm afraid not. The advantage decidedly goes to the elephants.

Ever since I discovered baseball cards, I've enjoyed browsing the numbers. That now extends to politics, our national blood sport. I wrote a column on this some years back, but most weren't paying attention to politics then. Pretty much everyone is paying attention these days, and with a crucial midterm election less than 100 days away, I thought you might find the numbers interesting.

Since Abraham Lincoln put the Republican Party on the map in 1861, our presidential elections have been pretty much a two-horse race. Yes, Andrew Johnson technically belonged to the made-up "National Union Party" when he took over for the assassinated Lincoln, but he was originally a Democratic senator from Tennessee, so we'll include him with the Democrats — as embarrassing as that might be for the donkeys. Seems he wasn't much of a president. And, yes, Teddy Roosevelt, after distinguishing himself as a Republican, decided to run again in 1912 as a "Bull Moose," but once an elephant, always an elephant. He lost, so the point is moot. 

By 2020, when the current resident, or his successor, complete what will be known as "The Term of Shame," Republicans will have held the White House for 92 years compared to 68 for the Democrats. That's a 57-43 winning percentage, reminiscent of the Yankees during their heyday. In the past 160 years, there have been 18 Republican presidents (three assassinations and a death in office inflated the number) as opposed to just 10 Democrats (one assassination, one died in office after three terms, and Cleveland was elected twice to non-consecutive terms). 

Breaking that down into 40-year chunks gives a clearer sense of the GOP's dominance. From 1861 to 1901, Republicans held the White House for 28 years, Democrats for 12, the latter deservedly banished to the political wilderness for their support of slavery. From 1901 to 1941, Republicans prevailed, 24-16. From 1941 to 1981, because the Depression banished the Republicans, deservedly, to the wilderness, Democrats enjoyed their only advantage, 24-16. And beginning with the Reagan revolution in 1981 (just seven years removed from Richard Nixon's disgrace), Americans forgot about Watergate and the Depression and returned Republicans to prominence, 24-16, bringing us up to 2020.

A Republican president led this country through its greatest crisis — the Civil War — and a Democrat guided us through our second and third greatest crises: the Depression and World War II. A Democrat was in charge during World War I (Wilson), during our greatest periods of post-war prosperity (Kennedy, Johnson and, more recently, Clinton), and a Democrat (Obama) managed to prevent the Great Recession from sliding into another Great Depression and sparked the economic upturn that Trump is now trying to take credit for. Two Republicans (Reagan and the first Bush) were in charge when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union was transformed into the rogue state known as Russia. The dissolution of the U.S. (by undermining Americans' faith in their own government) is an ongoing project, but the incapable hands of George W. Bush and Donald Trump, aided and abetted by Russia, have accelerated the process.

But that's just the presidency. What about the legislative branch? 

The record is mixed. Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for 44 Congresses vs. 35 for the Republicans (each Congress lasts two years), but Republicans held the Senate, 42 to 35. Twice the parties were tied.

Democrats held the edge in the House primarily because the Depression taught American voters a hard lesson about Republican incompetence. From 1861-1933, Republicans controlled the House 23 times compared to 13 for the Democrats. From 1981 to the present, they controlled it 10 times to the Democrats' 9. During and following the Depression and World War II, Democrats ruled 22-2. More recently, Republicans held the White House and Congress leading up to the Great Recession in 2008-9, yet just two years later voters handed the country's purse back to them. The hard lessons went unlearned.

In the last 160 years, four presidential candidates who lost the popular vote were installed as president via the electoral college — two out of three in this century thus far (bad trend), plus Rutherford Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888. All were Republicans; none will ever be found in the top half of the lists of presidents ranked by historians and political scientists.

All of this raises the question, "Why have the Republicans been the default setting for so many American voters for so long?" The two best Republican presidents, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, were actively progressive. They did not conform to the passive/aggressive conservative model that exists today and neither would be welcome in the current Republican Party. Given how little faith today's Republicans profess in the concept of good governance, how much hostility they express toward government generally, and how poorly they have governed overall, you would think voters would favor Democrats, who actually have a track record of relatively competent governance, especially in some of our most difficult times. I suspect it can be explained in terms of unconscious biases, which are, unfortunately, self-defeating.

If we ever want this country to move forward, the trend has to be flipped. Beginning in 2018, we need to start electing more Democrats and fewer Republicans — It's time to banish them once again to the political wilderness.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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