John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Happy Days?

Posted on December 20, 2012

A friend of mine reminded me via Facebook that the nation celebrated the 80th  anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition yesterday.

For all of those folks who have been or will be imbibing at your Christmas, please remember that 81 years ago, the official policy of the United States was that it was illegal to sell you the brandy that you in your Egg Nog.

In 1932, Republicans still believed that they were the majority party of the United States.  In the 70th Congress, which concluded in 1928, they had a big majority in the House of Representatives, with 238 Republicans.  In the 71st Congress, they believed that they were in even better shape.  They had 270 Republicans in the House of Representatives and 56 votes in the Senate.

Even in the 72nd Congress, they had some reason for optimism.  While they had lost their majority, it was tied at 217 to 217.  And they still had a slim one vote margin in the Senate.

But that all changed by the 73rd  Congress.   Commencing in the election of 1934, Republicans got swamped.  The Democrats had 311 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate, in the 74th Congress, the Democrats had a stunning 322 votes in the House and 70 votes in the Senate,  in the 74 Congress, Democrats had 334 votes and 75 votes in the Senate.

Republicans wouldn’t be competitive again until 1949, in the 80th Congress, when they swept in to claim both the House and the Senate amid concerns about communism in China and the leadership of Harry Truman.

What conspired to kill the Republicans in the 1930’s and the 1940’s?

  1. First, they were on the wrong side of Prohibition.  FDR forever became the President who allowed a working man to have a beer.  That resonated mightily with Catholic voters, who suddenly became the most important vote in this time frame.

  2. Second, they were on the wrong side of immigration.  In 1924, they tried to sharply curtail on legal immigration, and as a result, they alienated the new immigrants who soon made up a huge percentage of the country.

  3. Third, they were on the wrong side of the Depression.  They took the side of big business and stood up against government expansion.  Herbert Hoover gets a bad rap historically, but the fact is that he didn’t respond quickly enough to put people to work.  FDR responded forcefully, even if the policies didn’t necessarily measure up.

  4. Fourth, the Republicans were not the party of addition; they were the party of subtraction.  Republicans, who ran a nativist, ant-Catholic campaign vs. Al Smith in 1928, never recovered that deep deficit of trust with Catholic voters.   Despite the fact that Democrats dominated the South, they didn’t take any type of courageous stand on Civil Rights, and missed an opportunity to garner significant African American support.

  5. Fifth, the party retreated to the twin perils of isolation and reaction.  Instead of seeing the world and its possibilities, Republicans vowed to retreat from global engagement.  They saw little use for government, and preached the doctrine of free markets and free people in a world that saw first hand what happens when the free market runs awry.  In other words, the world had changed but the Republicans had not changed.

There are some historical parallels here.

Republicans better learn from the past.  If it does not adapt to fit the changing world, it will be in the minority for a long, long time.  If it does not become more welcoming of immigrants, develops a better understanding of the future, if it doesn’t appreciate how the culture influences how voters think, if it doesn’t modernize, the GOP won’t be a Grand Old Party.  It will be a dead old party.

I happen to think that Rand Paul might have the best handle on how to modernize the party.  He wants to sharply limit the power of government, (which is traditional Republican dogma), but he also wants to stop getting involved in the people’s private lives.  For example, he thinks we should end the fruitless war on drugs as we sharply limit the war we fight overseas.  He also wants to protect privacy by stopping the prevalent eavesdropping that currently dominates our present security state.

Rand Paul doesn’t have everything right, but he is right to want to modernize the party.  He might be our only chance.