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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

The battle for 2012 begins the day after Tuesday if, as expected, Republicans retake the House. There are two possible outcomes: gridlock between either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, or compromise. And both President Obama and the Republican leadership will be trying to figure out how to capitalize on either of those scenarios. How they'll do it? That's our cover story today.

In a few minutes, we'll have an update on the investigation into that attempted terror attack. But first, to some other midterms, and other presidents who saw their party lose Congress.

In 1946, it happened to Harry Truman's Democrats.

(Soundbite of cheering)

RAZ: Republicans swept those midterms, and the result was gridlock. So two years later, in his re-election campaign, Harry Truman decided to run against Congress.

President HARRY TRUMAN: Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it. Don't you forget that.

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RAZ: And his speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention wasn't conciliatory. It wasn't neutral. It was an all-out assault on what he called the Do Nothing Congress of 1947-'48.

President TRUMAN: Now, my friends, with the help of God and the wholehearted push, which you can put behind this campaign, we can save this country from a continuation of the 80th Congress and from misrule, from now on. I must have your help. You must get in and push, and win this election. The country can't afford another Republican Congress.

(Soundbite of applause)

RAZ: And Truman's strategy worked. And it turns out that over the past century, every single president who saw his party lose its majority in Congress has gone on to win re-election. It happened to Dwight Eisenhower, too.

In the 1954 midterms, Democrats retook Congress. So in 1956, Eisenhower could point out the stark differences between what he was offering and what the Democrats were.

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President DWIGHT EISENHOWER: I hold that the Republican Party and platform are right in 1956, because they are most closely in league with the future. And for this reason, the Republican Party and program are and will be decisively approved by the American people in 1956.

(Soundbite of applause)

RAZ: In 1994, the same thing happened to Bill Clinton. Here's what the news reports sounded like shortly before the 1994 midterms.

Unidentified Man #1: The programs were addressed, growing deficit and bring it down...

Unidentified Man #2: Very bold and dramatic economic growth package...

Unidentified Man #1: People who earn $200,000 and above can afford to make a contribution.

Unidentified Man #3: Advertising money hand over fist to promote or to defeat government health care.

Unidentified Woman #1: There is a spirit of hope across this country. It is probably both the greatest challenge and the greatest enemy that Bill Clinton has - is fulfilling the expectations of that hope.

RAZ: On November 8, 1994, Mark Gearan was at the White House, watching the election returns on TV.

Unidentified Woman #2: Forty-one in the Republican column and...

Unidentified Man #4: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #2: ...37 Democrats.

RAZ: At the time, he was President Clinton's director of communications.

Mr. MARK GEARAN (Former Director of Communications, White House): Throughout the day - the nature of a national election, throughout the day, with exit polls, you could see a building momentum, if you will, for the change election that it turned out to be.

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President BILL CLINTON: If we agree on nothing else tonight, we must agree that the American people certainly voted for change in 1992 and in 1994.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. GEARAN: I don't recall anyone winning any wagers that it would be as significant as it was.

RAZ: In January of 1995, Clinton decided that in his first State of the Union speech to the newly minted Republican Congress, he was going to be conciliatory.

President CLINTON: And congratulating you, Mr. Speaker.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. GEARAN: Now, certainly the State of the Union was a moment when it's very visible. The hype was significant, the chamber is so obviously weighted and the tableau of who was sitting behind him - all those elements were certainly historic and momentous.

President CLINTON: Without regard to party, let us rise to the occasion. Let us put aside partisanship and pettiness and pride.

RAZ: Now, none of that happened immediately. In fact, the hostility between Clinton's White House and Newt Gingrich's Congress was fierce. But like Truman and even Eisenhower, President Clinton was able to convince the public that the problem in Washington was Congress - and not him. And it's how he was re-elected in 1996.

Now, as you recall, I mentioned that every president over the past century who lost his party's majority in Congress went on to win re-election. And the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, is very aware of that historical fact. And he told the National Journal's Major Garrett that this time, he'll do everything to avoid a repeat of history.

Mr. MAJOR GARRETT (Congressional Correspondent, National Journal): And what Mitch McConnell has decided is if Republicans come to town, the number one priority is to guarantee that Barack Obama is a one-term president.

RAZ: So if that is his legislative priority in the Senate, how does he plan to do that?

Mr. GARRETT: He plans to do that by taking these new Republican senators, especially the more energized and aggressive ones, and doing what he and his number two in the Senate Republican leadership, Jon Kyl of Arizona, described to me as preaching and teaching.

Say, look, we have structural impediments to doing the kind of things you want to accomplish. Now, you can stand here and be frustrated, and give all sorts of fiery speeches on the floor, make yourself a momentary figure of national attention but ultimately, lose.

If you don't take a step-by-step building block approach to this, and lay a predicate for whoever the nominee for the party is in 2012 - to say, these are the problems, here are our solutions, and if you give us this kind of vote and these kind of larger numbers in the House and Senate, then we can achieve it - if you don't take this a methodical way, a slower way, you're going to risk losing the gains you've made.

RAZ: He's going to face several new members of the Senate who have been backed by the Tea Party, possibly Sharron Angle...

Mr. GARRETT: Possibly.

RAZ: ...likely Rand Paul...

Mr. GARRETT: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: ...Joe Miller, Ken Buck...

Mr. GARRETT: Ken Buck.

RAZ: ...from Colorado.

Mr. GARRETT: Colorado.

RAZ: Will that change the dynamic of what he wants to do? Because a lot of these candidates are running on a very straightforward platform: We're going to go to Washington, and we are going to cut, cut, cut.

Mr. GARRETT: Not only cut, cut, cut - but in the case of Rand Paul, in the case of Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, all of those, in one way or another, were not backed by Mitch McConnell, not backed by the party infrastructure...

RAZ: Right.

Mr. GARRETT: ...and have, therefore, scarcely little commitment or devotion to their approach to politics. They're going to arrive here saying, hey, if we listened to your approach six months ago, we wouldn't even be here.

RAZ: Right. So what can Republicans accomplish, say, if they control the House but not the Senate?

Mr. GARRETT: The House can send all kinds of legislation to the Senate. And the Senate can pick up parts of that and use it against sitting Democrats to say, okay, this is what we've done. This is where we think the country is. Will you support it?

Now, looking to our 2012 not just from the presidential perspective but from the legislative perspective, Republicans are eyeballing a lot more Democrats up for re-election, because the class was so big in 2006. Twenty-one Senate Democrats will be up for re-election, two independents and 10 Republicans.

RAZ: Only 10 Republicans.

Mr. GARRETT: Only 10 Republicans. And two of those independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, caucus with the Democrats. So effectively, you have 23 to 10.

RAZ: So 2012, the Democrats are even more vulnerable?

Mr. GARRETT: By numbers, they're more vulnerable. Certainly, you have a lot more races that are up. You have a lot more money you have to raise, a lot more money you have to spend, and you have a lot more targets.

RAZ: Major Garrett, you obviously have observed Congress for a long time - and presidents. Give me a sense of what the next two years will bring. I mean, will it be a series of partisan disputes, gridlock?

Mr. GARRETT: I think you're going to see a lot more gridlock than accomplishments. There are a couple of areas where perhaps the sides can get together because their entrenched bases are not as engaged on these issues, and don't consider them litmus-test issues.

Let me give you two examples. There's going to have to be a transportation bill authorized in this Congress. It's a six-year process. That's running out. That's roads and bridges; that's jobs; that's infrastructure. And almost every member of Congress has a vested interest in having that happen.

RAZ: But it's also spending.

Mr. GARRETT: But it's also spending. And there are - those in the infrastructure, they would like to see an elevation of the federal gasoline tax because as an inflation-adjusted metric, it hasn't risen in the last 15 or 20 years.

RAZ: That would create more revenue for infrastructure.

Mr. GARRETT: That would create more revenue than the Highway Trust Fund to pay for more roads, bridges, mass transit, other projects.

RAZ: And we know the Highway Trust Fund now is actually close to spent.

Mr. GARRETT: Which is one of the reasons they are thinking about this higher federal gasoline tax. Well, do you think Republicans want to come to town to do that?

RAZ: And what's the answer?

Mr. GARRETT: Probably not. I interviewed John Boehner this week. He said, I've never supported a tax increase, and I'm not going to support that one. But I also had an interview with Tom Donahue earlier this week, and Tom Donahue is the president of Chamber of Commerce - who said, look, Boehner may say that now, but America needs jobs. And infrastructure's a way to create those jobs.

And I can show him the math. This gasoline tax doesn't provide the revenue it needs for this country to have the infrastructure it absolutely, positively has to have. That's going to be a debate. So possibly on transportation, infrastructure, you could see something.

Education, you could also see something. Remember, John Boehner will be the first speaker - if the Republicans get the majority - since Tom Foley, who was previously, in life in Congress, a committee chairman. And he was chairman of the Educational Labor Committee. He knows these issues extremely well.

Republicans don't want to talk about it, but they do find aspects of the president's Race to the Top initiative, and requiring a lot more rigorous requirements of teachers, administrators and performance, more appealing than they're willing to let on.

Perhaps education is an avenue where the president gives a little bit, Republicans give a bit; there might be some accommodation there. But on entitlements, spending, taxes, health care, I think you're going to see a lot of gridlock.

RAZ: let me ask you about the president and personal relationships. He apparently had a very good relationship with Richard Lugar, senator from Indiana, when he was a senator. When he was a state legislator in Illinois, he famously had poker nights with Republican colleagues. Does he have any of those kinds of relationships now with Republicans in Congress, that you know of?

Mr. GARRETT: Not that I can detect, and not that I'm aware of. He knew his agenda was simply not going to be warmly received by Republicans. And one thing I think you can credit this president for is - some people call it glad-handing; some people call it just eyeball-to-eyeball B.S.-ing. And there's a lot of it in this town.

A lot of people look you right in the eye and tell you something that is completely untrue. The president doesn't do that. If he's going to sit down with you, he'll tell you exactly what he's going to do, and why. And if he doesn't believe at the end of that conversation anything is going to have moved, he doesn't have the conversation. There's no milk and cookies at the White House. If you're not going to change your mind, and I can't persuade you, and we know that going in, let's skip the meeting.

RAZ: Yeah. But how important are the milk and cookies?

Mr. GARRETT: I think the president believes they're important if the only -only if they carry you somewhere.

RAZ: I mean, Bill Clinton used to have regular meetings with Trent Lott, who was his sworn political enemy.

Mr. GARRETT: True. But not before he lost Congress.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: That's Major Garrett. He is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

Major, thank you so much.

MR. GARRETT: Been great to be with you.

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