Last week marked the third special election in which Republicans lost a House seat long held by their party. First, Dennis Hastert's seat in Illinois was wrested from the Republicans, an effort largely credited to the Obama organization outfitted to assist on the ground. The Louisiana 6th was next, followed by the Mississippi 1st, two districts so conservative they had been rarely considered in play. The Democratic Party's success is a frightening omen for the Republican leadership, a relative calm before a fast approaching political storm.
Democrats are poised to build on the gains they made in 2006, with a potential of picking up more than twenty seats in the House, pushing the Republicans even further into the wilderness of the minority. On the Senate side, there is equally good news. Democrats seem all but certain to pick up seats in Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, and New Hampshire, and are also well positioned to defeat Gordon Smith in Oregon. Republican Senators are also running weakly in Alaska, Texas, Maine, Minnesota, Kentucky, and North Carolina. If the special elections thus far are, as Republican Congressman Tom Davis suggested, "canaries in the coal mines," Democrats may very well see a gain sufficient to guarantee a 60 seat, filibuster-proof majority.
With such tremendous prospects for the Democratic party, and no sign that the Republicans have a plan to counter the inevitable, January of 2009 may well begin with a Democrat in office more powerful than any president in modern memory.
If Barack Obama is elected in such an environment, some historical precedents come to mind. The first is 1992, in which Bill Clinton ascended to the presidency at a time when Democrats controlled a 40 seat majority in the House and a six seat majority in the Senate. Given that these numbers are so similar to the ones Obama will inherit, there may be reason for pause. After all, Bill Clinton managed to bumble his first two years so badly that, in 1994, Republicans swept into power on the wave of the Gingrich revolution, leaving Clinton neutered, and a number of his campaign promises unrealized.
But 2008 is a far different scenario than 1992; beyond the numbers, the analogy fails to hold. The Democratic Party had been, for forty years, the entrenched majority in Congress. Though they maintained control after the 1992 election, they lost nine House seats. Frustration with Democrats, both in Congress and in the White House, had grown so much so that Bill Clinton was elected by running away from his party. Clinton's message of change was less about furthering the kind of progressive agenda that Congressional Democrats had envisioned, and more about co-opting Republican policies - from NAFTA to welfare reform. The Clintons' push for universal health care struck an adversarial tone with Members, shutting out many who had spent careers preparing to play a role. The circumstances in the country were different. The policy goals of the White House were different. And the tactical and strategic decisions were shoddy, arrogant, and misguided.
In 2008, Barack Obama will be riding a different kind of wave into the White House, one in which the country will be universally calling for unified, Democratic control in all branches of government. Rather than running away from Democratic philosophy, Obama has embraced it, pushing forth a progressive agenda that appeals to the Democratic base and Independents alike, without sacrifice. His rise to power evokes other historical precedents in which the analogy is far more accurate.
Like Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, Barack Obama's election will follow what Stephen Skowronek described as "disjunctive" presidencies, those in which the presidents went so wayward, and economic conditions became so unacceptable, that the American people called for and accepted wholesale political revolution. Herbert Hoover's abysmal handling of the Great Depression paved the way for FDR's dramatic rise to power and realignment of the political spectrum. Jimmy Carter, presiding over double digit inflation, a botched hostage crisis, and a speaking voice that, in both style and content, warned of midnight in America, was an essential precondition for Reagan's revolution.
In the House of Representatives, Democrats gained 97 seats when FDR was elected. In the Senate, they gained twelve. It was with that governing majority and that dramatic mandate for change that FDR built his new kind of politics.
His was a lasting legacy for the Democratic Party and the country. If the 2008 Congressional elections continue with the trend they've begun, an Obama presidency might well leave a similar mark.