Sam Rayburn’s Law of Presidential Governance: Over-Reaching Is Part of the Pattern

“When you get too big a majority, you’re immediately in trouble.” — Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, a Democrat, after F.D.R.’s 1936 landslide, quoted in William Safire’s column today.

That rule certainly applied to 1964 and 1972, when Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon let their election victories go to their heads, leading to arrogance of power, a Vietnam quagmire and coverup of mistakes by Johnson and Watergate scandal coverup by Nixon and ultimately, his resignation. Arguably, it also happened after the 1984 election, when Ronald Reagan inspired Oliver North and crew to break federal law to aid the Nicaraguan contras. (See Iran-Contra report.)


And after the 1992 election. When Bill Clinton came to power in January, 1993, with a Democratic-controlled Congress, he over-reached and got into big political trouble with his proposal to let gays live openly in the military; with a grandiose, overly complex health care reform proposal; and he inflamed gun-owners by pushing through the assault weapons ban by a narrow margin.

The GOP used those issues to cream the Democrats at the polls in the mid-term elections of 1994, and to take control of Congress for the first time since 1946.

IN 1993-94, Clinton had a dilemma: he needed to prove to the activist base of the Democratic Party that he shared their values of equal rights for gays, their passion for health care reform and gun control. If he did not appeal to his base, he risked becoming another Jimmy Carter — a President who did not have strong support among “real Democrats.” Yet by governing from the left, he lost the middle in the first two years. Same thing happened to Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats 1965-66 (big gains for GOP in 1966 mid-term elections, and they went on to win the Presidency narrowly in 1968).

One could argue that the same pattern occurred in 2010. After winning the 2008 election with an almost filibuster-proof majority in 2008, Barack Obama rammed a huge stimulus package, financial reform package and health care reform through Congress, only to have voters react negatively in the 2010 elections, and give the House of Representatives back to the Republicans.


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