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The history of the Democratic Party of the United States is an account of the Democratic Party, which is one of the oldest political parties in the world. During the "Second Party System", from 1832 to the mid-1850s, under presidents Andrew Jackson, (7th), Martin Van Buren, (8th) James K. Polk, (11th) and U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas, (1813-1861), of Illinois, (nominee of the violently-split Party Convention of the 1860 Presidential Election), the Democrats usually bested the opposition Whig Party by narrow margins, as both parties worked hard to build grass-roots organizations and maximize the turnout of voters. Both parties used patronage extensively to finance their operations, which included emerging big city machines as well as national networks of newspapers. The party was a proponent for farmers across the country, urban workers, and new immigrants. It advocated westward expansion, Manifest Destiny, greater equality among all white men, and opposition to the national bank.
From 1860 to 1932, in the era of the Civil War to the Great Depression, the recently organized in the mid-1850s, opposing Republican Party (from the ruins of the old previous Whig Party and some other smaller splinter groups) was dominant in presidential politics, as the Democrats elected only two presidents to four terms of office for 72 years, almost three-quarters of a century. Only Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th President in 1884 and 1892), and 28th President Woodrow Wilson (in 1912 and 1916); the only other Democratic president to serve during this time was "War Democrat", the only U.S. Senator from a southern-seceding state who refused to leave, Andrew Johnson, (who later as Vice President in the unusual Presidential Election of 1864 on a unified "Unionist Party" ticket, was elevated to the Presidency after 16th President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, but was never elected as president. Over the same period, the Democrats proved more competitive with the Republicans in Congressional politics, enjoying House of Representatives majorities, as in the 65th Congress) in 15 of the 36 Congresses elected, although only in five of these did they form the majority in the United States Senate.
The Party was split between the "Bourbon Democrats", representing Eastern business interests, and the agrarian elements comprising poor farmers in the South and West. The agrarian element, marching behind the slogan of "free silver" (i.e. controlling monetary inflation), captured the Party in 1896, and nominated the "Great Commoner", William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska in 1896, 1900, and 1908; --- the only man nominated but elected unsuccessfully for three conventions, he lost each time. Both Bryan and Wilson were leaders of the "Progressive Movement", 1900–1920. Starting with 32nd President Franklin D. Roosevelt (of New York) in 1932 of the "Great Depression", the Party dominated the "Fifth Party System", with its liberal/progressive policies and programs with the "New Deal" coalition to combat the emergency bank closings and the continuing financial depression since the famous "Wall Street Crash of 1929" and later going into the crises leading up to the Second World War of 1939/1941 to 1945. The Democratis and the Democratic Party, finally lost the White House and control of the executive branch of government only after Roosevelt's death in April 1945 near the end of the War, and after the continuing post-war administration of FDR's third Vice President of the United States, the Harry S Truman, former Senator from Missouri, (for 1945 to 1952, elections of 1944 and the "stunner" of 1948). A new Republican Party president was only elected later in the following decade of the early 1950s with the losses by two-time nominee, the Governor of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson (grandson of the former Vice President with the same name of the 1890's) to the very popular war hero and commanding general in World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (in 1952 and 1956).
With two brief interruptions since the "Great Depression", and World War II eras, the Democrats with unusually large majorities for over four decades, controlled the lower house of the United States Congress in the House of Representatives from 1930 until 1994, and the U.S. Senate for most of that same period, electing the Speaker of the House and the Representatives' majority leaders/committee chairs along with the upper house of the Senate's majority leaders and committee chairmen. Important Democratic progressive/liberal leaders included Presidents: 33rd - Harry S Truman, [of Missouri], (1945–1953), and 36th - Lyndon B. Johnson, [of Texas], (1963–1969), as well as the earlier Kennedy brothers of 35th President John F. Kennedy, [of Massachusetts], (1961–1963), Senators Robert F. Kennedy, of New York, and Senator Edward M. ("Teddy") Kennedy, of Massachusetts who carried the flag for modern American political liberalism. Since the Presidential Election of 1976, Democrats have won five out of the last ten presidential elections, winning in the presidential elections of 1976 (with 39th President Jimmy Carter of Georgia, 1976-1981), 1992 and 1996 (with 42nd President Bill Clinton of Arkansas, 1993-2001), and 2008 and 2012 (with 44th President Barack Obama of Illinois, 2009-incumbent).
The modern Democratic Party was formed in the 1830s from former factions of the Democratic-Republican Party, which had largely collapsed by 1824. It was built by Martin Van Buren with the purpose of gaining power without being tied down to principles or ideals in order to avoid the brewing Civil War over the institution of slavery. He rallied a cadre of politicians in every state behind war hero Andrew Jackson of Tennessee .
The spirit of Jacksonian Democracy animated the party from the early 1830s to the 1850s, shaping the Second Party System, with the Whig Party the main opposition. After the disappearance of the Federalists after 1815, and the Era of Good Feelings (1816–24), there was a hiatus of weakly organized personal factions until about 1828–32, when the modern Democratic Party emerged along with its rival the Whigs. The new Democratic Party became a coalition of farmers, city-dwelling laborers, and Irish Catholics.
Behind the party platforms, acceptance speeches of candidates, editorials, pamphlets and stump speeches, there was a widespread consensus of political values among Democrats. As Norton explains:
The Party was weakest in New England, but strong everywhere else and won most national elections thanks to strength in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia (by far, the most populous states at the time), and the frontier. Democrats opposed elites and aristocrats, the Bank of the United States, and the whiggish modernizing programs that would build up industry at the expense of the yeoman or independent small farmer.
From 1828 to 1848, banking and tariffs were the central domestic policy issues. Democrats strongly favored expansion to new farm lands, as typified by their expulsion of eastern American Indians and acquisition of vast amounts of new land in the West after 1846. The party favored the War with Mexico and opposed anti-immigrant nativism. Both Democrats and Whigs were divided on the issue of slavery. In the 1830s, the Locofocos in New York City were radically democratic, anti-monopoly, and were proponents of hard money and free trade. Their chief spokesman was William Leggett. At this time labor unions were few; some were loosely affiliated with the party.
Foreign policy was a major issue in the 1840s; War threatened with Mexico over Texas, and with Britain over Oregon. Democrats strongly supported Manifest Destiny and most Whigs strongly opposed it. The 1844 election was a showdown, with the Democrat James K. Polk narrowly defeating Whig Henry Clay on the Texas issue.
Faragher's analysis of the political polarization between the parties is that:
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) was created in 1848 at the convention that nominated General Lewis Cass, who lost to General Zachary Taylor of the Whigs. A major cause of the defeat was that the new Free Soil Party, which opposed slavery expansion, split the Democratic Party, particularly in New York, where the electoral votes went to Taylor. Democrats in Congress passed the hugely controversial Compromise of 1850. In state after state, however, the Democrats gained small but permanent advantages over the Whig Party, which finally collapsed in 1852, fatally weakened by division on slavery and nativism. The fragmented opposition could not stop the election of Democrats Franklin Pierce in 1852 and James Buchanan in 1856.
During 1858-60, Senator Stephen A. Douglas confronted President Buchanan in a furious battle for control of the party. Douglas finally won, but his nomination signaled defeat for the Southern wing of the party, and it walked out of the 1860 convention and nominated its own presidential ticket.
Eyal (2007) argues that the 1840s and 1850s were the heyday of a new faction of young Democrats called "Young America." Led by Stephen A. Douglas, James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, and New York financier August Belmont, this faction explains, broke with the agrarian and strict constructionist orthodoxies of the past and embraced commerce, technology, regulation, reform, and internationalism. The movement attracted a circle of outstanding writers, including William Cullen Bryant, George Bancroft, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. They sought independence from European standards of high culture and wanted to demonstrate the excellence and exceptionalism of America’s own literary tradition.
In economic policy Young America saw the necessity of a modern infrastructure with railroads, canals, telegraphs, turnpikes, and harbors; they endorsed the "market revolution" and promoted capitalism. They called for Congressional land grants to the states, which allowed Democrats to claim that internal improvements were locally rather than federally sponsored. Young America claimed that modernization would perpetuate the agrarian vision of Jeffersonian Democracy by allowing yeomen farmers to sell their products and therefore to prosper. They tied internal improvements to free trade, while accepted moderate tariffs as a necessary source of government revenue. They supported the Independent Treasury (the Jacksonian alternative to the Second Bank of the United States) not as a scheme to quash the special privilege of the Whiggish monied elite, but as a device to spread prosperity to all Americans.
Sectional confrontations escalated during the 1850s, the Democratic Party was split between North and South grew deeper. The conflict was papered over at 1852 in 1856 conventions by selecting men who had little involvement in sectionalism, but they made matters worse. Historian Roy F. Nichols explains why Franklin Pierce was not up to the challenges a Democratic president had to face:
In 1854, over vehement opposition, the main Democratic leader in the Senate, Stephen Douglas of Illinois, pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It established that settlers in Kansas Territory could vote to decide to allow or not allow slavery. Thousands of men moved in from North and South with the goal of voting slavery down or up, and their violence shook the nation. A major re-alignment took place among voters and politicians, with new issues, new parties, and new rules. The Whig Party dissolved entirely.
While the Democratic Party survived, many northern Democrats (especially Free Soilers from 1848) joined the newly established Republican Party. Buchanan, a Northern "Doughface" (his base of support was in the pro-slavery South), split the party on the issue of slavery in Kansas when he attempted to pass a Federal slave code as demanded by the South; most Democrats in the North rallied to Senator Douglas, who preached "Popular Sovereignty" and believed that a Federal slave code would be undemocratic.
The Democratic Party was unable to compete with the Republican Party, which controlled nearly all northern states by 1860, bringing a solid majority in the Electoral College. The Republicans claimed that the northern Democrats, including Doughfaces such as Pierce and Buchanan, and advocates of popular sovereignty such as Stephen A. Douglas and Lewis Cass, were all accomplices to Slave Power. The Republicans argued that slaveholders had seized control of the federal government and were blocking the progress of liberty.
In 1860 the Democrats were unable to stop the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, even as they feared his election would lead to civil war. The Democrats split over the choice of a successor to President Buchanan along Northern and Southern lines; factions of the party provided two separate candidacies for President in the election of 1860, in which the Republican Party gained ascendancy.
Some Southern Democratic delegates followed the lead of the Fire-Eaters by walking out of the Democratic convention at Charleston's Institute Hall in April 1860 and were later joined by those who, once again led by the Fire-Eaters, left the Baltimore Convention the following June when the convention rejected a resolution supporting extending slavery into territories whose voters did not want it. The Southern Democrats nominated the pro-slavery incumbent Vice-President, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, for President and General Joseph Lane, former governor of Oregon, for Vice President.
The Northern Democrats proceeded to nominate Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois for President and former Governor of Georgia Herschel V. Johnson for Vice-President, while some southern Democrats joined the Constitutional Union Party, backing its nominees (who had both been prominent Whig leaders), former Senator John Bell of Tennessee for President and the politician, statesman, and Edward Everett of Massachusetts for Vice-President.
This fracturing of the Democrats left them powerless. Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States. Douglas campaigned across the country calling for unity and came in second in the popular vote, but carried only Missouri and New Jersey. Breckinridge carried 11 slave states, coming in second in the Electoral vote, but third in the popular vote.
During the Civil War, Northern Democrats divided into two factions, the War Democrats, who supported the military policies of President Lincoln, and the Copperheads, who strongly opposed them. No party politics were allowed in the Confederacy, whose political leadership, mindful of the welter prevalent in antebellum American politics and with a pressing need for unity, largely viewed political parties as inimical to good governance and as being especially unwise in wartime. Consequently, the Democratic Party halted all operations during the life of the Confederacy, 1861-65.
Partisanship flourished in the North and strengthened the Lincoln Administration as Republicans automatically rallied behind it. After the attack on Ft. Sumter, Douglas rallied northern Democrats behind the Union, but when Douglas died, the party lacked an outstanding figure in the North, and by 1862 an anti-war peace element was gaining strength. The most intense anti-war elements were the Copperheads. The Democratic Party did well in the 1862 congressional elections, but in 1864 it nominated General George McClellan, a War Democrat, on a peace platform, and lost badly because many War Democrats bolted to National Union candidate Abraham Lincoln. Many former Democrats became Republicans, especially soldiers such as generals Ulysses S. Grant and John A. Logan.
In the 1866 elections, the Radical Republicans won two-thirds majorities in Congress and took control of national affairs. The large GOP majorities made Congressional Democrats helpless, though they unanimously opposed the Radicals' Reconstruction policies. Realizing that the old issues were holding it back, the Democrats tried a "New Departure" that downplayed the War and stressed such issues as corruption and white supremacy. Regardless, war hero Ulysses S. Grant led the Republicans to landslides in 1868 and 1872.
The Democrats lost consecutive presidential elections from 1860 through 1880 (1876 was in dispute) and did not win the presidency until 1884. The party was weakened by its record of opposition to the war but nevertheless benefited from white Southerners' resentment of Reconstruction and consequent hostility to the Republican Party. The nationwide depression of 1873 allowed the Democrats to retake control of the House in the 1874 Democratic landslide.
The Redeemers gave the Democrats control of every Southern state (by the Compromise of 1877); the disenfranchisement of blacks took place 1880–1900. From 1880 to 1960 the "Solid South" voted Democratic in presidential elections (except 1928). After 1900, a victory in a Democratic primary was "tantamount to election" because the Republican Party was so weak in the South.
Although Republicans continued to control the White House until 1884, the Democrats remained competitive, especially in the mid-Atlantic and lower Midwest, and controlled the House of Representatives for most of that period. In the election of 1884, Grover Cleveland, the reforming Democratic Governor of New York, won the Presidency, a feat he repeated in 1892, having lost in the election of 1888.
Cleveland was the leader of the Bourbon Democrats. They represented business interests, supported banking and railroad goals, promoted laissez-faire capitalism, opposed imperialism and U.S. overseas expansion, opposed the annexation of Hawaii, fought for the gold standard, and opposed Bimetallism. They strongly supported reform movements such as Civil Service Reform and opposed corruption of city bosses, leading the fight against the Tweed Ring.
The leading Bourbons included Samuel J. Tilden, David Bennett Hill and William C. Whitney of New York, Arthur Pue Gorman of Maryland, Thomas F. Bayard of Delaware, Henry M. Mathews and William L. Wilson of West Virginia, John Griffin Carlisle of Kentucky, William F. Vilas of Wisconsin, J. Sterling Morton of Nebraska, John M. Palmer of Illinois, Horace Boies of Iowa, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar of Mississippi, and railroad builder James J. Hill of Minnesota. A prominent intellectual was Woodrow Wilson.
The Bourbons were in power when the Panic of 1893 hit, and they took the blame. A fierce struggle inside the party ensued, with catastrophic losses for both the Bourbon and agrarian factions in 1894, leading to the showdown in 1896. Just before the 1894 election, President Cleveland was warned by an advisor:
The warning was appropriate, for the Republicans won their biggest landslide in decades, taking full control of the House, while the Populists lost most of their support. However, Cleveland's factional enemies gained control of the Democratic Party in state after state, including full control in Illinois and Michigan, and made major gains in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and other states. Wisconsin and Massachusetts were two of the few states that remain under the control of Cleveland's allies. The opposition Democrats were close to controlling two thirds of the vote at the 1896 national convention, which they needed to nominate their own candidate. However they were not united and had no national leader, as Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld had been born in Germany and was ineligible to be nominated for president.
Religious divisions were sharply drawn. Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Scandinavian Lutherans and other pietists in the North were closely linked to the Republican Party. In sharp contrast, liturgical groups, especially the Catholics, Episcopalians, and German Lutherans, looked to the Democratic Party for protection from pietistic moralism, especially prohibition. Both parties cut across the class structure, with the Democrats gaining more support from the lower classes and Republicans more support from the upper classes.
Cultural issues, especially prohibition and foreign language schools, became matters of contention because of the sharp religious divisions in the electorate. In the North, about 50 percent of voters were pietistic Protestants (Methodists, Scandinavian Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ) who believed the government should be used to reduce social sins, such as drinking.
Liturgical churches (Roman Catholics, German Lutherans, Episcopalians) comprised over a quarter of the vote and wanted the government to stay out of the morality business. Prohibition debates and referendums heated up politics in most states over a period of decade, as national prohibition was finally passed in 1918 (and repealed in 1932), serving as a major issue between the wet Democrats and the dry GOP.
Grover Cleveland led the party faction of conservative, pro-business Bourbon Democrats, but as the depression of 1893 deepened, his enemies multiplied. At the 1896 convention the silverite-agrarian faction repudiated the president, and nominated the crusading orator William Jennings Bryan on a platform of free coinage of silver. The idea was that minting silver coins would flood the economy with cash and end the depression. Cleveland supporters formed the National Democratic Party (Gold Democrats), which attracted politicians and intellectuals (including Woodrow Wilson and Frederick Jackson Turner) who refused to vote Republican.
Bryan, an overnight sensation because of his "Cross of Gold" speech, waged a new-style crusade against the supporters of the gold standard. Criss-crossing the Midwest and East by special train — he was the first candidate since 1860 to go on the road — he gave over 500 speeches to audiences in the millions. In St. Louis he gave 36 speeches to workingmen's audiences across the city, all in one day. Most Democratic newspapers were hostile toward Bryan, but he seized control of the media by making the news every day, as he hurled thunderbolts against Eastern monied interests.
The rural folk in the South and Midwest were ecstatic, showing an enthusiasm never before seen. Ethnic Democrats, especially Germans and Irish, however, were alarmed and frightened by Bryan. The middle classes, businessmen, newspaper editors, factory workers, railroad workers, and prosperous farmers generally rejected Bryan's crusade. McKinley promised a return to prosperity based on the gold standard, support for industry, railroads and banks, and pluralism that would enable every group to move ahead.
Although Bryan lost the election in a landslide, he did win the hearts and minds of a majority of Democrats, as shown by his renomination in 1900 and 1908; as late as 1924, the Democrats put his brother on their national ticket. The victory of the Republican Party in the election of 1896 marked the start of the "Progressive Era," from 1896 to 1932, in which the Republican Party usually was dominant.
The 1896 election marked a political realignment in which the Republican Party controlled the presidency for 28 of 36 years. The Republicans dominated most of the Northeast and Midwest, and half the West. Bryan, with a base in the South and Plains states, was strong enough to get the nomination in 1900 (losing to McKinley) and 1908 (losing to Taft). Theodore Roosevelt dominated the first decade of the century, and to the annoyance of Democrats "stole" the trust issue by crusading against trusts.
Anti-Bryan conservatives controlled the convention in 1904, but faced a Theodore Roosevelt landslide. Bryan dropped his free silver and anti-imperialism rhetoric and supported mainstream progressive issues, such as the income tax, anti-trust, and direct election of Senators. He backed Woodrow Wilson in 1912, was rewarded with the State Department, then resigned in protest against Wilson's non-pacifistic policies in 1916. Northern Democrats were progressive on most issues, but generally opposed prohibition, were lukewarm regarding women's suffrage, and were reluctant to undercut the "boss system" in the big cities.
Taking advantage of a deep split in the Republican Party, the Democrats took control of the House in 1910, and elected the intellectual reformer Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916. Wilson successfully led Congress to a series of progressive laws, including a reduced tariff, stronger antitrust laws, new programs for farmers, hours-and-pay benefits for railroad workers, and the outlawing of child labor (which was reversed by the Supreme Court).
Wilson tolerated the segregation of the federal Civil Service by Southern cabinet members. Furthermore, bipartisan constitutional amendments for prohibition and women's suffrage were passed in his second term. In effect, Wilson laid to rest the issues of tariffs, money and antitrust that had dominated politics for 40 years.
Wilson oversaw the U.S. role in World War I, and helped write the Versailles Treaty, which included the League of Nations. But in 1919 Wilson's political skills faltered, and suddenly everything turned sour. The Senate rejected Versailles and the League, a nationwide wave of violent, unsuccessful strikes and race riots caused unrest, and Wilson's health collapsed.
The Democrats lost by a huge landslide in 1920, doing especially poorly in the cities, where the German-Americans deserted the ticket, and the Irish Catholics, who dominated the party apparatus, sat on their hands. Although they recovered considerable ground in the Congressional elections of 1922, the entire decade saw the Democrats as a helpless minority in Congress, and as a weak force in most northern states.
At the 1924 Democratic National Convention, a resolution denouncing the Ku Klux Klan was introduced by forces allied with Al Smith and Oscar W. Underwood in order to embarrass the front-runner, William Gibbs McAdoo. After much debate, the resolution failed by a single vote. The KKK faded away soon after, but the deep split in the party over cultural issues, especially Prohibition, facilitated Republican landslides in 1920, 1924, and 1928. However, Al Smith did build a strong Catholic base in the big cities in 1928, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's election as Governor of New York that year brought a new leader to center stage.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression set the stage for a more progressive government and Franklin D. Roosevelt won a landslide victory in the election of 1932, campaigning on a platform of "Relief, Recovery, and Reform"; that is, relief of unemployment and rural distress, recovery of the economy back to normal, and long-term structural reforms to prevent a repetition of the Depression. This came to be termed "The New Deal" after a phrase in Roosevelt's acceptance speech.
The Democrats also swept to large majorities in both houses of Congress, and among state governors. Roosevelt altered the nature of the party, away from laissez-faire capitalism, and towards an ideology of economic regulation and insurance against hardship. Two old words took on new meanings: "Liberal" now meant a supporter of the New Deal; "conservative" meant an opponent.
Conservative Democrats were outraged; led by Al Smith, they formed the American Liberty League in 1934 and counterattacked. They failed, and either retired from politics or joined the Republican Party. A few of them, such as Dean Acheson, found their way back to the Democratic Party.
The 1933 programs, called "the First New Deal" by historians, represented a broad consensus. Roosevelt tried to reach out to business and labor, farmers and consumers, cities and countryside. By 1934, however, he was moving toward a more confrontational policy. After making gains in state governorships and in Congress, in 1934 Roosevelt embarked on an ambitious legislative program that came to be called "The Second New Deal." It was characterized by building up labor unions, nationalizing welfare by the WPA, setting up Social Security, imposing more regulations on business (especially transportation and communications), and raising taxes on business profits.
Roosevelt's New Deal programs focused on job creation through public works projects as well as on social welfare programs such as Social Security. It also included sweeping reforms to the banking system, work regulation, transportation, communications, and stock markets, as well as attempts to regulate prices. His policies soon paid off by uniting a diverse coalition of Democratic voters called the New Deal Coalition, which included labor unions, southerners, minorities (most significantly, Catholics and Jews), and liberals. This united voter base allowed Democrats to be elected to Congress and the presidency for much of the next 30 years.
After a triumphant re-election in 1936, he announced plans to enlarge the Supreme Court, which tended to oppose his New Deal, by five new members. A firestorm of opposition erupted, led by his own Vice President John Nance Garner. Roosevelt was defeated by an alliance of Republicans and conservative Democrats, who formed a Conservative coalition that managed to block nearly all liberal legislation (only a minimum wage law got through). Annoyed by the conservative wing of his own party, Roosevelt made an attempt to rid himself of it; in 1938, he actively campaigned against five incumbent conservative Democratic senators; all five senators won re-election.
Under FDR, the Democratic Party became identified more closely with modern liberalism, which included the promotion of social welfare, labor unions, civil rights, and the regulation of business. The opponents, who stressed long-term growth and support for entrepreneurship and low taxes, now started calling themselves "conservatives."
Harry Truman took over after Roosevelt's death in 1945, and the rifts inside the party that Roosevelt had papered over began to emerge. Major components included the big city machines, the southern state and local parties, the far-left, and the "Liberal coalition" or "Liberal-Labor Coalition" comprising the AFL, CIO, and ideological groups such as the NAACP (representing Blacks), the American Jewish Congress (AJC), and the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) (representing liberal intellectuals). By 1948 the unions had expelled nearly all the far-left and Communist elements.
On the right the Republicans blasted Truman’s domestic policies. “Had Enough?” was the winning slogan as Republicans recaptured Congress in 1946 for the first time since 1928.
Many party leaders were ready to dump Truman in 1948, but after General Dwight D. Eisenhower rejected their invitation they lacked an alternative. Truman counterattacked, pushing J. Strom Thurmond and his Dixiecrats out, and taking advantage of the splits inside the Republican Party. He was reelected in a stunning surprise. However all of Truman’s Fair Deal proposals, such as universal health care were defeated by the Conservative Coalition in Congress. His seizure of the steel industry was reversed by the Supreme Court.
On the far-left former Vice President Henry A. Wallace denounced Truman as a war-monger for his anti-Soviet programs, the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and NATO. Wallace quit the party, and ran for president as an independent in 1948. He called for détente with the Soviet Union but much of his campaign was controlled by Communists who had been expelled from the main unions. Wallace fared poorly and helped turn the anti-Communist vote toward Truman.
By cooperating with internationalist Republicans, Truman succeeded in defeating isolationists on the right and supporters of softer lines on the Soviet Union on the left to establish a Cold War program that lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Wallace supporters and other Democrats who were farther left were pushed out of the party and the CIO in 1946–48 by young anti-Communists like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Hollywood emerged in the 1940s as an important new base in the party, led by movie-star politicians such as Ronald Reagan, who strongly supported Roosevelt and Truman at this time.
In foreign policy, Europe was safe but troubles mounted in Asia. China fell to the Communists in 1949. Truman entered the Korean War without formal Congressional approval—the last time a president would ever do so. When the war turned to a stalemate and he fired General Douglas MacArthur in 1951, Republicans blasted his policies in Asia. A series of petty scandals among friends and buddies of Truman further tarnished his image, allowing the Republicans in 1952 to crusade against “Korea, Communism and Corruption.” Truman dropped out of the presidential race early in 1952, leaving no obvious successor. The convention nominated Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, only to see him overwhelmed by two Eisenhower landslides.
In Congress the powerful duo of House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson held the party together, often by compromising with Eisenhower. In 1958 the party made dramatic gains in the midterms and seemed to have a permanent lock on Congress, thanks largely to organized labor. Indeed, Democrats had majorities in the House every election from 1930 to 1992 (except 1946 and 1952).
Most southern Congressmen were conservative Democrats, however, and they usually worked with conservative Republicans. The result was a Conservative Coalition that blocked practically all liberal domestic legislation from 1937 to the 1970s, except for a brief spell 1964–65, when Johnson neutralized its power. The counterbalance to the Conservative Coalition was the Democratic Study Group, which led the charge to liberalize the institutions of Congress and eventually pass a great deal of the Kennedy-Johnson program.
The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 over then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon re-energized the party. His youth, vigor and intelligence caught the popular imagination. New programs like the Peace Corps harnessed idealism. In terms of legislation, Kennedy was stalemated by the Conservative Coalition.
Though Kennedy's term in office lasted only about a thousand days, he tried to hold back Communist gains after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and the construction of the Berlin Wall, and sent 16,000 soldiers to Vietnam to advise the hard-pressed South Vietnamese army. He challenged America in the Space Race to land an American man on the moon by 1969. After the Cuban Missile Crisis he moved to de-escalate tensions with the Soviet Union.
Kennedy also pushed for civil rights and racial integration, one example being Kennedy assigning federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders in the south. His election did mark the coming of age of the Catholic component of the New Deal Coalition. After 1964 middle class Catholics started voting Republican in the same proportion as their Protestant neighbors. Except for the Chicago of Richard J. Daley, the last of the Democratic machines faded away. President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas.
Then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the new president. Johnson, heir to the New Deal ideals, broke the Conservative Coalition in Congress and passed a remarkable number of liberal laws, known as the Great Society. Johnson succeeded in passing major civil rights laws that restarted racial integration in the south. At the same time, Johnson escalated the Vietnam War, leading to an inner conflict inside the Democratic Party that shattered the party in the elections of 1968.
The Democratic Party platform of the 1960s was largely formed by the ideals of President Johnson's "Great Society." The New Deal Coalition began to fracture as more Democratic leaders voiced support for civil rights, upsetting the party's traditional base of conservative Southern Democrats and Catholics in Northern cities. After Harry Truman's platform gave strong support to civil rights and anti-segregation laws during the 1948 Democratic National Convention, many Southern Democratic delegates decided to split from the Party and formed the "Dixiecrats," led by South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond (who, as a Senator, would later join the Republican Party). However, few other conservative Democrats left the party.
On the other hand, African Americans, who had traditionally given strong support to the Republican Party since its inception as the "anti-slavery party," continued to shift to the Democratic Party, largely due to the economic opportunities offered by the New Deal relief programs, patronage offers, and the advocacy of and support for civil rights by such prominent Democrats as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Although Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower carried half the South in 1952 and 1956, and Senator Barry Goldwater also carried five Southern states in 1964, Democrat Jimmy Carter carried all of the South except Virginia, and there was no long-term realignment until Ronald Reagan's sweeping victories in the South in 1980 and 1984.
The party's dramatic reversal on civil rights issues culminated when Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Meanwhile, the Republicans, led again by Nixon, were beginning to implement their Southern strategy, which aimed to resist federal encroachment on the states, while appealing to conservative and moderate white Southerners in the rapidly growing cities and suburbs of the South.
The year 1968 marked a major crisis for the party. In January, even though it was a military defeat for the Viet Cong, the Tet Offensive began to turn American public opinion against the Vietnam War. Senator Eugene McCarthy rallied intellectuals and anti-war students on college campuses and came within a few percentage points of defeating Johnson in the New Hampshire primary; Johnson was permanently weakened. Four days later Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of the late president, entered the race.
Johnson stunned the nation on March 31 when he withdrew from the race; four weeks later his vice-president, Hubert H. Humphrey, entered the race but did not run in any primary. Kennedy and McCarthy traded primary victories while Humphrey gathered the support of labor unions and the big-city bosses. Kennedy won the critical California primary on June 4, but he was assassinated that night. (Even as Kennedy won California, Humphrey had already amassed 1000 of the 1312 delegate votes needed for the nomination, while Kennedy had about 700).
During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, while police and the National Guard violently confronted anti-war protesters on the streets and parks of Chicago, the Democrats nominated Humphrey. Meanwhile Alabama's Democratic governor George C. Wallace launched a third-party campaign and at one point was running second to the Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon. Nixon barely won, with the Democrats retaining control of Congress. The party was now so deeply split that it would not again win a majority of the popular vote for president until 1976. (Carter won the popular vote in 1976 with 50.1%.)
The degree to which the Southern Democrats had abandoned the party became evident in the 1968 presidential election when the electoral votes of every former Confederate state except Texas went to either Republican Richard Nixon or independent Wallace. Humphrey's electoral votes came mainly from the Northern states, marking a dramatic reversal from the 1948 election 20 years earlier, when the losing Republican electoral votes were concentrated in the same states.
Following the 1968 debacle, the McGovern-Fraser Commission proposed, and the Party adopted, far-reaching changes in how national convention delegates were selected. More power over the presidential nominee selection accrued to the rank and file and presidential primaries became significantly more important. In 1972, the Democrats nominated Sen. George McGovern (SD) as the presidential candidate on a platform which advocated, among other things, immediate U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam (with his anti-war slogan "Come Home, America!") and a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans.
McGovern's forces at the national convention ousted Mayor Richard J. Daley and the entire Chicago delegation, replacing them with insurgents led by Jesse Jackson. After it became known that McGovern's running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had received electric shock therapy, McGovern said he supported Eagleton "1000%" but he was soon forced to drop him and find a new running mate.
With his campaign stalled for several weeks McGovern finally selected Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy in-law who was close to Mayor Daley. On July 14, 1972, McGovern appointed his campaign manager, Jean Westwood, as the first woman chair of the Democratic National Committee. McGovern was defeated in a landslide by incumbent Richard Nixon, winning only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
The sordid Watergate scandal soon destroyed the Nixon presidency, giving the Democrats a flicker of hope. With Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon soon after his resignation in 1974, the Democrats used the "corruption" issue to make major gains in the off-year elections. In 1976, mistrust of the administration, complicated by a combination of economic recession and inflation, sometimes called stagflation, led to Ford's defeat by Jimmy Carter, a former Governor of Georgia. Carter won as a little-known outsider by promising honesty in Washington, a message that played well to voters as he won narrowly.
Carter had served as a naval officer, a farmer, a state senator, and a one-term governor. His only experience with federal politics was when he chaired the Democratic National Committee's congressional and gubernatorial elections in 1974. Some of Carter's major accomplishments consisted of the creation of a national energy policy and the consolidation of governmental agencies, resulting in two new cabinet departments, the United States Department of Energy and the United States Department of Education.
Carter also successfully deregulated the trucking, airline, rail, finance, communications, and oil industries (thus backtracking on the New Deal approach to regulation of the economy), bolstered the social security system, and appointed record numbers of women and minorities to significant government and judicial posts. He also enacted strong legislation on environmental protection, through the expansion of the National Park Service in Alaska, creating 103 million acres (417,000 km²) of park land.
In foreign affairs, Carter's accomplishments consisted of the Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal Treaties, the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, and the negotiation of the SALT II Treaty. In addition, he championed human rights throughout the world and used human rights as the center of his administration's foreign policy.
Even with all of these successes, Carter failed to implement a national health plan or to reform the tax system, as he had promised in his campaign. Inflation was also on the rise. Abroad, the Iranians held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, and Carter's diplomatic and military rescue attempts failed. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan later that year further disenchanted some Americans with Carter.
In 1980, Carter defeated Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy to gain renomination, but lost to Ronald Reagan in November. The Democrats lost 12 Senate seats, and for the first time since 1954, the Republicans controlled the Senate. The House, however, remained in Democratic hands.
After his re-election defeat, Carter negotiated the release of every American hostage held in Iran. They were lifted out of Iran minutes after Reagan was inaugurated, and Carter served as Reagan's emissary to greet them when they arrived in Germany.
Democrats who supported many conservative policies were instrumental in the election of Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1980. The "Reagan Democrats" were Democrats before the Reagan years, and afterward, but they voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 (and for George H. W. Bush in 1988), producing their landslide victories. Reagan Democrats were mostly white ethnics in the Northeast and Midwest who were attracted to Reagan's social conservatism on issues such as abortion, and to his strong foreign policy. They did not continue to vote Republican in 1992 or 1996, so the term fell into disuse except as a reference to the 1980s. The term is not used to describe southern whites who became permanent Republicans in presidential elections.
Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, analyzed white ethnic voters — largely unionized auto workers — in suburban Macomb County, Michigan, just north of Detroit. The county voted 63 percent for Kennedy in 1960 and 66 percent for Reagan in 1984. He concluded that Reagan Democrats no longer saw Democrats as champions of their middle class aspirations, but instead saw it as a party working primarily for the benefit of others, especially African Americans, advocacy groups of the political left, and the very poor.
The failure to hold the Reagan Democrats and the white South led to the final collapse of the New Deal coalition. Reagan carried 49 states against former Vice President and Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale, a New Deal stalwart, in 1984.
In response to these landslide defeats, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was created in 1985. It worked to move the party rightwards to the ideological center in order to recover some of the fundraising that had been lost to the Republicans due to corporate donors supporting Reagan. The goal was to retain left-of-center voters as well as moderates and conservatives on social issues, to become a catch all party with widespread appeal to most opponents of the Republicans. Despite this, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, running not as a New Dealer but as an efficiency expert in public administration, lost by a landslide in 1988 to Vice President George H. W. Bush.
For nearly a century after Reconstruction, the white South identified with the Democratic Party. The Democrats' lock on power was so strong the region was called the Solid South, although the Republicans controlled parts of the Appalachian mountains and they competed for statewide office in the border states. Before 1948, southern Democrats believed that their party, with its respect for states' rights and appreciation of traditional southern values, was the defender of the southern way of life. Southern Democrats warned against aggressive designs on the part of Northern liberals and Republicans and civil rights activists whom they denounced as "outside agitators."
The adoption of the strong civil rights plank by the 1948 convention and the integration of the armed forces by President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order 9981, which provided for equal treatment and opportunity for African-American servicemen, drove a wedge between the northern and southern branches of the party.
With the presidency of John F. Kennedy the Democratic Party began to embrace the civil rights movement, and its lock on the South was irretrievably broken. Upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson prophesied, "We have lost the South for a generation."
Modernization had brought factories, national businesses, and larger, more cosmopolitan cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, and Houston to the South, as well as millions of migrants from the North and more opportunities for higher education. Meanwhile, the cotton and tobacco economy of the traditional rural South faded away, as former farmers commuted to factory jobs. As the South became more like the rest of the nation, it could not stand apart in terms of racial segregation.
Integration and the civil rights movement caused enormous controversy in the white South, with many attacking it as a violation of states' rights. When segregation was outlawed by court order and by the Civil Rights acts of 1964 and 1965, a die-hard element resisted integration, led by Democratic governors Orval Faubus of Arkansas, Lester Maddox of Georgia, and especially George Wallace of Alabama. These populist governors appealed to a less-educated, blue-collar electorate that on economic grounds favored the Democratic Party, but opposed desegregation. After 1965 most Southerners accepted integration (with the exception of public schools).
Believing themselves betrayed by the Democratic Party, traditional white southerners joined the new middle-class and the Northern transplants in moving toward the Republican Party. Meanwhile, newly enfranchised Black voters began supporting Democratic candidates at the 80-90-percent levels, producing Democratic leaders such as Julian Bond and John Lewis of Georgia, and Barbara Jordan of Texas. Just as Martin Luther King had promised, integration had brought about a new day in Southern politics. The Republican Party's southern strategy further alienated black voters from the party.
In addition to its white middle-class base, Republicans attracted strong majorities among evangelical Christians, who prior to the 1980s were largely apolitical. Exit polls in the 2004 presidential election showed that Bush led Kerry by 70–30% among Southern whites, who comprised 71% of the voters. Kerry had a 90–9 lead among the 18% of Southern voters who were black. One-third of the Southern voters said they were white evangelicals; they voted for Bush by 80–20.
The Democrats included a strong element that came of age in opposition to the Vietnam War, and remained hostile toward American military interventions. On August 1, 1990, Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait. President Bush formed an international coalition and secured UN approval to expel Iraq. Congress on January 12, 1991 authorized by a narrow margin the use of military force against Iraq, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. The vote in the House was 250–183, and in the Senate 52-47. In the Senate 42 Republicans and 10 Democrats voted yes to war, while 45 Democrats and two Republicans voted no. In the House 164 Republicans and 86 Democrats voted yes, and 179 Democrats, three Republicans and one Independent voted no. The war, a military operation known as "Desert Storm," was short and successful, but Hussein was allowed to remain in power. The Arab countries (and Japan) repaid all the American military costs.
In the 1990s the Democratic Party revived itself, in part by moving to the right on economic policy. In 1992, for the first time in 12 years, the United States had a Democrat in the White House. During President Bill Clinton's term, the Congress balanced the federal budget for the first time since the Kennedy presidency and presided over a robust American economy that saw incomes grow across the board. In 1994, the economy had the lowest combination of unemployment and inflation in 25 years. President Clinton also signed into law several gun control bills, including the Brady Bill, which imposed a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases; he also signed into legislation a ban on many types of semi-automatic firearms (which expired in 2004). His Family and Medical Leave Act, covering some 40 million Americans, offered workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-guaranteed leave for childbirth or a personal or family illness. He deployed the U.S. military to Haiti to reinstate deposed president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, took a strong (if ultimately unsuccessful) hand in Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, brokered a historic cease-fire in Northern Ireland, and negotiated the Dayton accords. In 1996, Clinton became the first Democratic president to be reelected since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944.
However, the Democrats lost their majority in both houses of Congress in 1994. Clinton vetoed two Republican-backed welfare reform bills before signing the third, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. The tort reform Private Securities Litigation Reform Act passed over his veto. Labor unions, which had been steadily losing membership since the 1960s, found they had also lost political clout inside the Democratic Party; Clinton enacted the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico over unions' strong objections. In 1998, the Republican-led House of Representatives impeached Clinton on two charges; he was subsequently acquitted by the United States Senate in 1999. Under Clinton's leadership, the United States participated in NATO's Operation Allied Force against Yugoslavia that year.
Economist Sebastian Mallaby argues that the Party increasingly adopted pro-business, pro free market principles after 1976:
As the DLC attempted to move the Democratic agenda to the right (to a more centrist position), prominent Democrats from both the centrist and conservative factions (such as Terry McAuliffe) assumed leadership of the party and its direction. Some liberals and progressives felt alienated by the Democratic Party, which they felt had become unconcerned with the interests of the common people and left-wing issues in general. Some Democrats challenged the validity of such critiques, citing the Democratic role in pushing for progressive reforms.
During the 2000 presidential election, the Democrats chose Vice President Al Gore to be the party's candidate for the presidency. Gore ran against George W. Bush, the Republican candidate and son of a former President George H.W. Bush. The issues Gore championed include debt reduction, tax cuts, foreign policy, public education, global warming, judicial appointments, and affirmative action. Nevertheless, Gore's affiliation with Clinton and the DLC caused critics to assert that Bush and Gore were too similar, especially on free trade, reductions in social welfare, and the death penalty. Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader in particular was very vocal in his criticisms. "We want to punish the Democrats, we want to hurt them, wound them," Nader's closest advisor said.
Gore won a popular plurality of over 540,000 votes over Bush, but lost in the Electoral College by four votes. Many Democrats blamed Nader's third-party spoiler role for Gore's defeat. They pointed to the states of New Hampshire (4 electoral votes) and Florida (25 electoral votes), where Nader's total votes exceeded Bush's margin of victory. In Florida, Nader received 97,000 votes; Bush defeated Gore by a mere 537. Controversy plagued the election, and Gore largely dropped from politics for years; by 2005 however he was making speeches critical of Bush's foreign policy.
Despite Gore's close defeat, the Democrats gained five seats in the Senate (including the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York), to turn a 55–45 Republican edge into a 50–50 split (with a Republican Vice President breaking a tie). However, when Republican Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont decided in 2001 to become an independent and vote with the Democratic Caucus, the majority status shifted along with the seat, including control of the floor (by the Majority Leader) and control of all committee chairmanships. However, the Republicans regained their Senate majority with gains in 2002 and 2004, leaving the Democrats with only 44 seats, the fewest since the 1920s.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the nation's focus was changed to issues of national security. All but one Democrat (Representative Barbara Lee) voted with their Republican counterparts to authorize President Bush's 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. House leader Richard Gephardt and Senate leader Thomas Daschle pushed Democrats to vote for the USA PATRIOT Act and the invasion of Iraq. The Democrats were split over entering Iraq in 2003 and increasingly expressed concerns about both the justification and progress of the War on Terrorism, as well as the domestic effects, including threats to civil rights and civil liberties, from the USA PATRIOT Act. Senator Russ Feingold was the only Senator to vote against the act.
In the wake of the financial fraud scandal of the Enron Corporation and other corporations, Congressional Democrats pushed for a legal overhaul of business accounting with the intention of preventing further accounting fraud. This led to the bipartisan Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002. With job losses and bankruptcies across regions and industries increasing in 2001 and 2002, the Democrats generally campaigned on the issue of economic recovery. That did not work for them in 2002 as the Democrats lost a few seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
They lost three seats in the Senate (Georgia as Max Cleland was unseated, Minnesota as Paul Wellstone died and his succeeding Democratic candidate lost the election, and Missouri as Jean Carnahan was unseated) in the Senate. While Democrats gained governorships in New Mexico (where Bill Richardson was elected), Arizona (Janet Napolitano) and Wyoming (Dave Freudenthal), other Democrats lost governorships in South Carolina (Jim Hodges), Alabama (Don Siegelman) and, for the first time in more than a century, Georgia (Roy Barnes).
The election led to another round of soul searching about the party's narrowing base. Democrats had 2003, when a voter recall unseated the unpopular Democratic governor of California, Gray Davis, and replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. By the end of 2003 the four most populous states had Republican governors: California, Texas, New York and Florida.
The 2004 campaign started as early as December 2002, when Gore announced he would not run again in the 2004 election. Howard Dean, former Governor of Vermont, an opponent of the war and a critic of the Democratic establishment, was the front-runner leading into the Democratic primaries. Dean had immense grassroots support, especially from the left wing of the party. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a more centrist figure with heavy support from the Democratic Leadership Council, was nominated because he was seen as more "electable" than Dean.
As layoffs of American workers occurred in various industries due to outsourcing, some Democrats (including Dean and senatorial candidate Erskine Bowles of North Carolina) began to refine their positions on free trade, and some even questioned their past support for it. By 2004, the failure of George W. Bush's administration to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, mounting combat casualties and fatalities in that country, and the lack of any end point for the War on Terror were frequently debated issues in the election. That year, Democrats generally campaigned on surmounting the jobless recovery, solving the Iraq crisis, and fighting terrorism more efficiently.
In the end, Kerry lost both the popular vote (by 3 million out of over 120 million votes cast) and the Electoral College. Republicans also gained four seats in the Senate (leaving the Democrats with only 44 seats, their fewest since the 1920s) and three seats in the House of Representatives. Also, for the first time since 1952, the Democratic leader of the Senate lost re-election. In the end, there were 3,660 Democratic state legislators across the nation to the Republicans' 3,557. Democrats gained governorships in Louisiana, New Hampshire and Montana. However, they lost the governorship of Missouri and a legislative majority in Georgia—which had long been a Democratic stronghold. Senate pickups for the Democrats included Ken Salazar in Colorado and 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speaker Barack Obama in Illinois.
There were many reasons for the defeat. After the election most analysts concluded that Kerry was a poor campaigner. A group of Vietnam veterans opposed to Kerry called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth undercut Kerry's use of his military past as a campaign strategy. Kerry was unable to reconcile his initial support of the Iraq War with his opposition to the war in 2004, or manage the deep split in the Democratic Party between those who favored and opposed the war.
Republicans ran thousands of television commercials to argue that Kerry had flip-flopped on Iraq. When Kerry's home state of Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, the issue split liberal and conservative Democrats and independents (Kerry publicly stated throughout his campaign that he opposed same sex marriage, but favored civil unions). Republicans exploited the same-sex marriage issue by promoting ballot initiatives in 11 states that brought conservatives to the polls in large numbers; all 11 initiatives passed.
Flaws in vote-counting systems may also have played a role in Kerry's defeat (see 2004 U.S. presidential election controversy and irregularities). Senator Barbara Boxer of California and several Democratic U.S. Representatives (including John Conyers of Michigan) raised the issue of voting irregularities in Ohio when the 109th Congress first convened, but they were defeated 267–31 by the House and 74-1 by the Senate. Other factors include a healthy job market, a rising stock market, strong home sales, and low unemployment.
After the 2004 election, prominent Democrats began to rethink the party's direction, and a variety of strategies for moving forward were voiced. Some Democrats proposed moving towards the right to regain seats in the House and Senate and possibly win the presidency in the election of 2008; others demanded that the party move more to the left and become a stronger opposition party. One topic of discussion was the party's policies surrounding reproductive rights.
Rethinking the party's position on gun control became a matter of discussion, brought up by Howard Dean, Bill Richardson, Brian Schweitzer and other Democrats who had won governorships in states where Second Amendment rights were important to many voters. In What's the Matter with Kansas?, commentator Thomas Frank wrote the Democrats needed to return to campaigning on economic populism.
These debates were reflected in the 2005 campaign for Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, which Howard Dean won over the objections of many party insiders. Dean sought to move the Democratic strategy away from the establishment, and bolster support for the party's state organizations, even in red states (the Fifty-state strategy).
When the 109th Congress convened, Harry Reid, the new Senate Minority Leader, tried to convince the Democratic Senators to vote more as a bloc on important issues; he forced the Republicans to abandon their push for privatization of Social Security. In 2005, the Democrats retained their governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, electing Tim Kaine and Jon Corzine, respectively. However, the party lost the mayoral race in New York City, a Democratic stronghold, for the fourth straight time.
With scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, as well as Duke Cunningham, Tom DeLay, Mark Foley, and Bob Taft, the Democrats used the slogan "Culture of corruption" against the Republicans during the 2006 campaign. Negative public opinion on the war in Iraq, widespread dissatisfaction over the ballooning federal deficit, and the inept handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster dragged down President Bush's job approval ratings.
As a result of the 2006 midterm elections, the Democratic Party became the majority party in the House of Representatives and its caucus in the United States Senate constituted a majority when the 110th Congress convened in 2007. The Democrats had spent twelve successive years as the minority party in the House before the 2006 mid-term elections. The Democrats also went from controlling a minority of governorships to a majority. The number of seats held by party members likewise increased in various state legislatures, giving the Democrats control of a plurality of them nationwide. No Democratic incumbent was defeated, and no Democratic-held open seat was lost, in either the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, or with regards to any governorship.
The Democratic Party's electoral success has been attributed by some to running conservative-leaning Democrats against at-risk Republican incumbents, while others claim that running more populists and progressive candidates has been the source of success. Exit polling suggested that corruption was a key issue for many voters.
In the 2006 Democratic caucus leadership elections, Democrats chose Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland for House Majority Leader and nominated Representative Nancy Pelosi of California for speaker. Senate Democrats chose Harry Reid of Nevada for United States Senate Majority Leader. Pelosi was elected as the first female House speaker at the commencement of the 110th Congress. The House soon passed the measures that comprised the Democrats' 100-Hour Plan.
The 2008 Democratic presidential primaries left two candidates in close competition: Illinois Senator Obama and New York Senator Hillary Clinton. Both had won more support within a major American political party than any previous African American or female candidate. Before official ratification at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Obama emerged as the party's presumptive nominee. With President George W. Bush of the Republican Party ineligible for a third term and the Vice President Dick Cheney not pursuing his party's nomination, Senator John McCain of Arizona more quickly emerged as the GOP nominee.
Throughout most of the 2008 general election, polls showed a close race between Obama and John McCain. However, Obama maintained a small but widening lead over McCain in the wake of the liquidity crisis of September 2008.
On November 4, Obama defeated McCain by a significant margin in the Electoral College; the party also made further gains in the Senate and House, adding to its 2006 gains.
On January 20, 2009, Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States in a ceremony attended by nearly 2 million people, the largest congregation of spectators ever to witness the inauguration of a new president. While an outpouring of optimism and good feeling greeted Obama's inauguration, the administration would soon see its economic stimulus plan challenged by Republican governors and conservative and libertarian activists in the Tea Party movement.
Obama and the Democratic Congress began to pursue and later enact health care reform. Republicans appeared poised to hand the president's party a hefty defeat in the 2010 congressional elections when a predicted economic recovery failed to materialize. Democrats lost 63 seats and control of the House of Representatives that year, but retained the Senate with a diminished majority.
The aftermath of the stormy election season would reveal lingering resentments on both sides. In January 2011, a Democratic congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, was targeted for assassination in a deadly shooting in Tucson, Arizona that claimed the lives of six people. Giffords was shot in the head but survived. Some blamed the Tea Party for creating a toxic political climate that would lead to such a tragedy, but Obama garnered praise for calling on both sides to practice civility in discussing the possible political causes for the shooting.
Intense budget negotiations in the divided 112th Congress, wherein Democrats resolved to fight Republican demands for decreased spending and no tax hikes, threatened to shut down the government in April 2011, and later spurred fears that the United States would default on its debt. Continuing economic and budgetary woes would also be felt at the state level, where public-sector unions, a key Democratic constituency, battled Republican efforts to limit their collective bargaining powers in order to save money. This led to sustained protests by public-sector employees and walkouts by sympathetic Democratic legislators in states like Wisconsin and Ohio.
Abroad, the image of the United States improved slightly in Europe and the Middle East, but conservatives criticized the president for "passive" responses to crises such as the 2009 Iranian protests and the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Additionally, liberal and Democratic activists objected to Obama's decisions to send reinforcements to Afghanistan, resume military trials of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, and to help enforce a no-fly zone over Libya during that country's civil war. But the demands of anti-war advocates were heeded when Obama followed through on a campaign promise to withdraw combat troops from Iraq.
The 2012 election was characterized by very high spending, especially on negative television ads in about ten critical states. Despite a weak economic recovery and high unemployment, the Obama campaign successfully mobilized its coalition of youth, blacks, Hispanics and women, losing two of the states (Indiana and North Carolina) he narrowly carried in 2008. The election continued the pattern whereby Democrats won more votes in all presidential elections after 1988, except for 2004. There was little change in Congress, as intense negotiations began after the election to deal with the "fiscal cliff" scheduled for January 1, 2013.
Campaign text books The national committees of major parties published a "campaign textbook" every presidential election from about 1856 to about 1932. They were designed for speakers and contain statistics, speeches, summaries of legislation, and documents, with plenty of argumentation. Only large academic libraries have them, but some are online: