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American Politics Presidency: a quiet revolution

This second installment marking nine decades of the Monitor looks at how the faces and methods of government have changed.

In the 90 years since The Christian Science Monitor first went to press, American politics has moved from presidents who rode to their inaugurations in a horse-drawn buggy to senators orbiting in space.

While the superstructure of American politics is the same, many of the details are profoundly altered. Consider: In 1908 the United States Senate had only 92 members, because there were only 46 states. Senators were elected, not by voters, but by state legislatures. The House had 386 representatives.

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Women could vote in only 12 states, and no women served in Congress. The voting age was 21, and there was no income tax. Most Americans lived in rural areas, and the population was centered in the Northeast: New York had 39 electoral votes and Pennsylvania had 34, while California had 10, Florida 5, and Texas 18. Blacks in the North could vote, but most still lived in the segregated South, where specially crafted literacy laws kept them from the polls.

Voters met their candidates in person or read about them in newspapers. No one had heard of radio, TV, or exit polls.

The changes since 1908 have been profound: Arizona and New Mexico joined the union in 1912, followed by Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. That brought the number of senators to 100.

Meanwhile, the process of electing senators was distorting both the election and work of state legislators. So in 1913 the 17th Amendment was adopted, providing for direct election of senators by the voters of each state.

The House of Representatives also changed with dramatic effect. Until 1929, as the population grew and states were added, the House simply added new seats. In that year, Congress limited the number of House seats to 435. This meant that eventually each House member would represent far more people than in the past. And it also meant that when a state gained seats as its population grew, they would come at the expense of another state.

A changing population

That's significant, because the United States has seen a number of important population shifts over the 20th century. For one thing, the population has almost tripled from 92 million in the 1910 census to 249 million in 1990. Ever mobile, Americans moved from the countryside to urban areas, until, by 1920, most lived in cities. After World War II, they decamped to the suburbs that now surround every major urban center.

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In addition, the population drifted south and west: California passed New York as the most-populous state in the early 1960s; today New York ranks third behind Texas. The geographic "center" of US population moved from Bloomington, Ind., in 1910 to near Steelville, Mo., 80 years later. As a result, while New York now has dropped to 33 electoral votes and Pennsylvania to 23, California now has 54, Florida 25, and Texas 32.

The electorate has also grown more diverse. Women got the vote in federal elections in 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment. While blacks migrated north to industrial jobs by the millions beginning in World War I, the end of segregation and the passage of civil-rights legislation in the 1950s and '60s guaranteed them access to the ballot box. The 26th Amendment in 1971 extended the vote in federal elections to 18-year-olds.

The result was to slowly open politics and government to people who had been excluded. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin (R) of Montana became the first congresswoman. President Franklin Roosevelt named the first woman Cabinet member, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, in 1933. President Ronald Reagan appointed the first woman Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, in 1981. And in 1984, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to win a major-party nomination for vice president.

Robert Weaver became the first African-American Cabinet member in 1966, appointed secretary of Housing and Urban Development by President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson also named the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, in 1967.

Just as important, the changes led to the election of thousands of women and blacks to local, state, and federal offices nationwide. By 1997, 21 percent of state legislators were women, as well as 22 percent of statewide offices and 11 percent of Congress.

Immigration also changed America's population and politics. The wide-open immigration policy that brought millions of Irish and Germans to the US in the mid-19th century brought millions of Italians, East Europeans, and Jews to the nation's large cities at the beginning of the 20th. But a backlash brought on by the nationalism of World War I and a fear of communism closed the door in the 1920s. Not until the mid-1960s, when Congress removed ethnic quotas from US immigration policy, did the flow begin again. The resulting influx of Hispanics and Asians created new voting groups, who began working their way into the political system. The admission of Hawaii as a state also helped Asians gain a footing on the national stage.

Political firsts

The decades since 1908 saw many firsts in American politics. Republican President Warren Harding's 1920 victory was the first in which returns were broadcast by radio. He was also the first president elected while a sitting senator.

In 1928, Democrat Al Smith of New York was the first Roman Catholic to run for president. He lost to Herbert Hoover, the first president born west of the Mississippi River. In 1960, John Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts became the first (and so far, only) Catholic president. He was also the youngest president.

Franklin Roosevelt was the first and only president elected for more than two terms (he was elected to four, but died in office shortly after his fourth term began in 1944). Ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951 limited his successors to two four-year terms.

The 25th Amendment, adopted in 1967, defines the method of filling vacancies in the vice presidency. It came not a minute too soon: In 1973 Rep. Gerald Ford (R) of Michigan became the first person appointed vice president and then the first unelected president when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 during the Watergate scandal.

How strong a president?

At the Monitor's birth, power in Washington was beginning to shift toward the president. In the aftermath of the Civil War, with the near-impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1867 over political disagreements with Congress, presidents had pretty much deferred to the legislative branch. But the US entrance onto the world stage in the Spanish-American War of 1898 began to strengthen the president's hand.

President Theodore Roosevelt moved forcefully to build the "great white fleet" and also strengthened the Army. President Woodrow Wilson enlarged the power and influence of the White House during World War I and in its aftermath as he fought unsuccessfully for US participation in the League of Nations. But no one did as much to strengthen the presidency as Franklin Roosevelt - perhaps because during his tenure the nation was threatened both economically and militarily as it had not been since the war between the states.

Taking office in the midst of the Depression, when unemployment was near 25 percent, Roosevelt greatly expanded the federal government's role in the economy. This adoption of a Progressive-movement agenda reversed the traditional Democratic stance that the Constitution required a limited government. Following his lead, Congress created a host of new government agencies and programs, the most durable of which is Social Security.

Roosevelt even fought with the Supreme Court when it ruled some of his programs unconstitutional, proposing to increase the number of justices so he could appoint friendlier judges and tip the balance in his favor. He lost the fight, but the court grew friendlier anyway.

Roosevelt's programs alleviated the suffering of many, but did not end the Depression. That came only with the beginning of World War II, which brought the nation back to full production. After Roosevelt, Republican and Democratic presidents continued the strong presidency, arguing that the military threat posed by the Soviet Union and the need to solve domestic problems (including racial discrimination) required it. They were aided by uninterrupted Democratic control of the House from 1955 through 1994, and of the Senate from 1955 through 1979 and 1987 through 1994.

The federal government grew further under Democratic Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, with the creation of new Cabinet departments, the Medicare old-age health-insurance system, and other Great Society social programs. The power of the presidency reached a climax when first President Harry Truman in Korea and then Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam committed US troops and fought wars without a declaration of war from Congress.

The presidency began to weaken as Congress rebelled over Vietnam and as a result of the Watergate scandal. Congress in 1973 passed the War Powers Act, seriously limiting the president's ability to deploy US troops abroad without Congress's approval. No president since has conceded that the act is constitutional, but both sides have worked together to avoid a confrontation during crises such as the Gulf War or Bosnia.

The Watergate scandal of the 1970s and the investigations of President Clinton in the 1990s also resulted in limiting presidential power. Both Nixon and Mr. Clinton asserted claims of executive privilege in trying to prevent the handover of documents and the testimony of aides. But Supreme Court rulings and actions severely limited such claims, opening up the chief executive to more-thorough investigations of his decisionmaking and acts.

The presidency remains far stronger than it was at the turn of the century. But a reinvigorated Republican Party, best symbolized by President Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 and the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995, wants to return power to the states and reduce the size of the federal government.

Party coalitions

The past 90 years have seen several realignments in party coalitions. In 1908, the dominant Republicans were deeply divided into progressive and conservative wings. The progressives actually deserted the party in the 1912 election and ran Theodore Roosevelt for president. The resulting split in the GOP vote handed the White House to Democrat Wilson, and Democrats took over Congress for the first time in 20 years.

The GOP, at the time a coalition of the industrial East and the agricultural West, reunited in the 1918 election and won every election during the 1920s. But it was devastated by President Hoover's inability to pull the country out of the Depression. Democrats controlled the White House for the next 20 years and Congress for 18 of those years as Franklin Roosevelt put together a coalition of liberals, farmers, labor, Southerners, and blacks, who before the 1930s had always voted Republican.

As depression gave way to war and war to victory, strains began to appear in the Democratic coalition. Kennedy's election, for example, marked one of the last times that Catholics voted for Democrats en masse. While Catholics had been reliable Democratic voters throughout the century, by 1968 many were beginning to vote Republican. Abortion politics and social conservatism explain some of the shift, but Catholics' economic success and upward mobility were also factors.

Republicans also drew votes from suburbanites, and farmers in many states returned to the GOP fold. But the most profound change was in the South, which began to significantly support Republicans for the first time. Underlying some of the change was the race issue: Southern Democrats led by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina deserted the Democratic Party in the 1948 election and ran their own "Dixiecrat" ticket. That move was echoed in 1968 and 1972 by the candidacy of Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, the first time as an Independent, the second as a Democrat.

Republicans' desire for a smaller federal government merged well with the South's traditional advocacy of states' rights. Conservative Southerners were also repelled by the liberal takeover of the national Democratic Party at the 1972 convention. But the GOP was also helped in the South by increasing economic development there, which drew white-collar newcomers who tended to vote Republican. By 1995, the "solid South" had shifted almost entirely, leading to the GOP takeover of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Today, both parties are deeply divided: Republicans are divided into fiscal-conservative, social-conservative, and moderate factions. Democrats have liberal, black, moderate "New Democrat," and conservative wings. In between is a large percentage of independents who, when they vote, favor the party they think is closest to the middle.

The Progressive legacy

Finally, the fruits of the Progressive movement, in full flower in 1908, dramatically changed US politics. Innovations such as the recall of elected officials, statewide referendums, and direct primary elections spread throughout the country during the 1900s.

This transformed the presidential nominating process. In 1920, President Harding was nominated by a few kingmakers in the famous "smoke-filled room" at the Republican convention. By the 1980s, candidates in both major parties would be nominated entirely by primaries open to voters in each state.

But many students of politics believe the Progressive reforms did much to weaken party structures and lead to political stalemate. From Zachary Taylor (Whig) in 1849 until Dwight Eisenhower (R) in 1955, every president enjoyed a Congress led by his own party. But between 1952 and 1998, presidents had a Congress led by the opposition party for 30 of the 46 years.

In addition, parties by 1998 had weakened to the point where candidates could go over the heads of party leaders to get nominations, running their own TV ads and doing their own polling. This makes it difficult for Democrats and Republicans to maintain discipline and develop and implement programs.

With no clear mandate for either party, the next few years promise to be ones of intense political struggle. In many ways, no different from 1908.

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