The Perils of Restoration Politics: 19th-Century Antecedents

David A Crockett. Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume 42, Issue 4. December 2012.

George W. Bush, like his father, was a “regime manager” trying to advance the political project established by Ronald Reagan. Unlike his father, however, the younger Bush came to power after an opposition party interregnum, placing him in the position of restoring, rather than simply advancing, the Reagan agenda. So, while in Stephen Skowronek’s political time taxonomy both Bushes are classified as presidents of articulation (1993), the fact that they came to power as part of different partisan sequences—Republican-to-Republican for the elder Bush, Democrat-to-Republican for the younger—is an important aspect of the historical context of their presidencies.

This distinction between presidents of articulation suggests the possibility of a second level of classification of regime managers, one of which could be labeled “restoration presidents.” Restoration presidents are presidents from the dominant party who come to power immediately following opposition presidents. Their leadership task is to restore the political agenda of the regime’s founder after an opposition party interregnum. The existence of common elements among this group can be helpful for understanding our own political era, for if George W Bush represented a “restoration” of Reagan conservatism following the Bill Clinton interregnum, the lessons learned from similarly placed presidents in political time are important to evaluate both Bush’s performance as president and our current placement in political time.

This article focuses attention on the nineteenth-century presidents who first experienced the opportunities and constraints peculiar to this category and established the pattern of leadership. The argument proceeds in three stages. First, I summarize earlier work placing presidents in historical context. Second, I profile these nineteenth-century antecedents, focusing on the restoration efforts of Jacksonian Democrats James K. Polk and Franklin Pierce, and Republicans Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley, highlighting the extent to which the presidencies of opposition leaders compel restoration presidents to pursue specific agenda paths. Finally, I conclude with some remarks about what this analysis indicates for contemporary American politics.

Subcategories of Regime Articulation

In Skowronek’s (1993) taxonomy, the regime affiliate is the largest category. Of the 43 presidents through George W. Bush, only six have been presidents of reconstruction and 12 of preemption. That leaves 25 who were affiliated with the dominant regime after it was established. And whereas presidents of reconstruction and opposition almost always follow presidents of the opposing party, regime affiliates follow varying patterns of succession.

Focusing strictly on the question of sequencing, there would appear to be four different types of regime affiliates. The first is the one who immediately follows the regime founder. Several scholars have examined variations of this category (Burnham 1993; Langston 2002; Zinman 2009), and these “heir apparent” presidents include John Adams, James Madison, Martin Van Buren, Ulysses Grant, Harry Truman, and the elder Bush. Each of these six regime affiliates shares a common characteristic—picking up the standard of the founder of a political dynasty and wrestling with the question of how to lead while paying obeisance to the party’s patron saint.

The second type of regime affiliate is the president who restores the dominant party to power following an opposition party interlude. Unlike the heirs apparent, who follow a president from their party, restoration presidents always enter the office in a partisan change of power. The complete set consists of the Jacksonian Democrats following the Whig presidents (James K. Polk and Franklin Pierce), Republicans following Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson (Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Warren G. Harding), Democrats after Dwight Eisenhower (John F Kennedy) and Gerald Ford (Jimmy Carter), and George W Bush following Clinton.

The third type of regime affiliate is the dynastic successor who continues the regime, following a dynastic ally and extending governing party control over the White House for additional terms in the sequence. These regime affiliates follow presidents from their party, but they follow other regime managers, not regime builders. Some of these dynastic successors follow heirs apparent, extending the initial phase of regime consolidation to an unusual extent—presidents like James Monroe and Rutherford B. Hayes. Other dynastic successors follow restoration presidents, extending the control of the governing party in the latter phase of the regime era—presidents such as William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge.

The final type of regime affiliate is what Skowronek (1993) calls the president of disjunction. Because it is impossible to predict when exactly a regime’s vulnerability becomes so great as to prepare the way for a shift in party dominance, presidents of disjunction actually enter office as one of the three other types of affiliates. As the prevailing regime collapses, they become increasingly enmeshed in the politics of disjunction. Both Presidents Adams are in this category, as are Buchanan, Hoover, and Carter. This category is unique in this discussion of sequencing because it is defined not by who the president succeeds, but by who succeeds the president—presidents of reconstruction.

Because, then, presidents of disjunction start their presidencies as a regime affiliate of one of the first three varieties, there is some overlap between the presidents of disjunction and other categories. Otherwise, the categories are fairly distinct. Table 1 depicts these four categories, listing those individuals having two labels in italics.

There is a generational aspect that distinguishes the heirs apparent from restoration presidents. Heir apparent presidents are always part of the founding generation of the regime, their task being to consolidate the gains of the regime builder. Adams and Madison, of course, were integral parts of the founding of the American nation itself as well as the Federalist and Jeffersonian eras. Van Buren was the architect of Andrew Jackson’s victory and Democratic supremacy in 1828, while Grant was the leader of the military arm of Abraham Lincoln’s effort. Franklin Roosevelt’s exceptionally lengthy presidency posed a challenge to his junior peers who aspired to his position. Nonetheless, his sudden death at the start of his fourth term brought to power Harry Truman, who first entered national politics as a successful candidate for senator in 1934, nearly at the ground floor of the New Deal system. Finally, the elder Bush was Reagan’s principal competitor in 1980, brought into the inner circle as vice president.

By contrast, restoration presidents typically are not involved in the establishment of the regime. Polk was the restoration president with the strongest claim to having been “present at the creation,” having served as speaker of the House in the final days of Jackson’s presidency. But even “Young Hickory,” who came to power just 16 years after the founding of the Jacksonian regime, stood in relation to the regime founders as a dutiful son—the leader of a new generation of “Jacksonians”—more than a younger brother. Pierce was younger still, beginning his political career in the New Hampshire legislature as the Jacksonian era began, and coming to power 24 years after the founding. The next restoration presidents to take office, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley, were junior partners in the party system established in the Civil War. Harrison was a Civil War veteran who did not enter national public office until he won a Senate seat in 1881, 20 years after the founding of the Republican era. McKinley was also a veteran of the Civil War, not entering national politics until his election to the House in 1876, 16 years after the era’s founding. Warren G. Harding came next among the restoration presidents. He won national office in 1914, and looked to McKinley as his personal hero. John Kennedy did not join the New Deal coalition until 1946, 14 years after Roosevelt’s first victory. Finally, George W Bush served as a behind-the-scenes aide to his father, not coming to national prominence until he won the gubernatorial race in Texas in 1994, again 14 years after the Reagan regime began.

The pattern, then, is that restoration presidents enter national public life after the initial battles that mark a regime’s establishment, often years after the regime’s beginning, and they win the presidency nearly a quarter century after the governing party’s rise to power. In fact, with the exception of Polk’s unusually quick rise to the presidency just 16 years after the establishment of the Jacksonian regime, the other restoration presidents all obtained the office from 20 to 36 years after their eras’ respective foundings. They are the only category of regime affiliates who effect a partisan change in the White House. They are what Kennedy called a “new generation of leadership.” Their task is to return from exile to reorient politics to its proper course—to “return to normalcy,” in the immortal words of Harding. Whereas the heir apparent faces the task of furthering the regime founder’s agenda in his immediate wake, all restoration presidents run for office responding to the leadership of an opposition president. By the time they enter the scene, a quarter century after the regime’s establishment, some of the core issues that divided the parties during the reconstruction phase of the era have been resolved. New issues have arisen, which become the seeds of future turmoil.

The critical question for the restoration president is how to respond to having been in exile for one or two terms and what to focus on upon their return to power. Does the fact that restoration presidents follow opposition presidents give rise to a political dynamic unique to this category? Are there patterns that tend to replicate themselves among these similarly placed presidents?

Polk, Pierce, and Jacksonian Era Restoration

Restorations require opposition party victories, and there were no successful opposition parties before the modern party era. The birth of the modern party system made victory for the opposition party possible, as well as the restoration to power of the dominant party. These early examples established a pattern that would be repeated throughout American history.

The Very Short First Exile of Jacksonian Democrats

Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1828 reset the political universe, forcing his opponents to react to his agenda. Central issues dividing the parties included the national bank, tariffs, internal improvements, Native American sovereignty, and executive usurpation. Jackson moved aggressively to solidify control over the institutions of government through legislation, vigorous use of the veto, obstruction of Supreme Court decisions, and successful electoral appeals. His reelection in 1832 gave him sufficient political capital to destroy the National Bank and pack the Court with allies who would protect his accomplishments (Magliocca 2007, 20-73). Jackson’s heir apparent, Martin Van Buren, had the misfortune of assuming power just as the panic of 1837 hit the nation. The resulting contraction lasted nearly seven years. The economic disaster paved the way for Whig victory in 1840, sweeping to control of all three elective branches of government for the only time in the party’s history, prompting one party leader to hail “the restoration of our common Country to its original prosperity and greatness.” Democrats were sent into metaphorical exile, facing the prospect of a general repudiation of the Jacksonian agenda (Holt 1999, 122).

William Henry Harrison called a special session of Congress to address the economic crisis, at which Henry Clay planned to resurrect the Bank. Harrison’s adherence to Whig philosophy meant that the Whig legislative agenda would likely pass (Magliocca 2007, 75-76; Peterson 1989, 31-41). Clay’s plans to lead a frontal assault against the Jacksonian system, with Harrison as his ally in the White House, would move forward. Successful repudiation of the Jacksonian agenda would depend on passage of Whig plans for the Bank and tariff, and a sense by the population that those accomplishments adequately addressed the economic crisis.

Whigs never got the chance. Harrison’s demise only a month into his term set the stage for the most unusual restoration in American history, for his death brought into power John Tyler, a nominal Whig who was at heart a southern states’ rights Democrat. In addition to twice supporting Jackson for the presidency, Tyler opposed the central agenda of the Whig Party, including the party’s tariffand bank policies. Tyler’s affiliation with the Whigs was due only to the fact that he objected to Jackson’s aggressive use of presidential power, but he opposed his new party’s principal goals in its moment of greatest opportunity. Although the formal restoration of the Jacksonian regime began with James K. Polk, the de facto restoration began after only one month of Whig opposition, with a Democratic mole in the White House.

Tyler, Polk, and the First Jacksonian Restoration

Tyler’s use of the veto allowed him to serve as a type of Democrat-by-proxy, leaving the Whig agenda on the ash heap of history. However, the veto obstructs more than restores. Tyler preserved the economic legacy of the Jacksonians by vetoing Whig bank and tariff bills, but he did not move it forward. Tyler began restoration of the Jacksonian agenda in his effort to bring Texas into the union. As with the bank and tariff, this was an area on which Tyler and the Whigs disagreed. Whigs opposed territorial acquisitions, seeing them as destabilizing to the union. Democrats, driven by an ideological heritage embraced by Thomas Jefferson and channeled by Tyler, saw expansion as essential to preserve agrarian ideals and a minimal national government (Monroe 2003, 157-63). Tyler attempted to bring Texas into the union via the treaty route, but both Clay and Van Buren opposed immediate annexation on the grounds that it would foster sectional divisions. When the ratification vote in the Senate failed, Tyler recast the measure as a joint resolution of Congress (Peterson 1989, 201-28).

Tyler’s efforts propelled Texas statehood into the middle of the 1 844 presidential race. Van Buren, architect of the Democratic Party and Jackson’s own victories two decades earlier, was now seen as holding views far too similar to Clay. With territorial expansion a central doctrine of the Democratic Party, Van Buren became unviable as a party standard bearer, and the deadlock at the party convention resolved in favor of James K. Polk. Tyler cleared the path for Polk by agreeing to exit the race in return for support for the immediate acquisition of Texas. Thus, the nominally Whig president sided with the Democrats in the election. In the final days of his presidency, Congress passed, and Tyler signed, the joint resolution that began the process of bringing Texas into the union (Holt 1999, 174-75; Silbey 2005, 1-5, 57-70).

Democrats had seen their defeat in 1840 as a lost opportunity, robbing them of their position as the primary agenda setter in the nation. Polk’s victory appeared to set the political universe aright once again, giving the party the opportunity to restore its agenda to the forefront of American politics. In reality, Polk came to office following an accidental president who had already spent nearly four years repudiating Whig politics and jump-starting Democratic ambitions with respect to territorial expansion. With Texas statehood almost a fait accompli, Polk had the singular advantage of starting the formal restoration project with the agenda already in motion.

Polk came to office with four specific policy goals, which together would constitute a restoration and advancement of the Jacksonian regime. Two of these goals were economic in nature—reduction of the tariff and the permanent death of all banking schemes through the establishment of an independent treasury. The Tyler protorestoration had seen the Whig counteroffensive stopped in its tracks with the veto, but Polk aimed to settle these questions once and for all. The Walker Tariff was designed to reduce tariff rates to a level sufficient to provide necessary revenue to the government without lowering the volume of imports. In 1846, with the help of Vice President George Dallas’s tie-breaking vote in the Senate, the Walker Tariff became the new law of the land. One day later, Congress passed the Independent Treasury Act, which ended Whig banking ambitions until the establishment of the Federal Reserve System in 1913. That same week Polk vetoed an internal improvements bill, making traditional Jacksonian arguments about limited government, sectional favoritism, and fiscal responsibility. The appeal to Jacksonian virtues extended Polk’s restoration efforts. Democratic victory was so comprehensive that the next Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, believed these formerly core issue differences were dead (Bergeron 1987, 185-96; Borneman 2008, 224-29; Hamilton 1951, 44-45; Silbey 2005, 93-96).

The most proactive agenda item that Polk inherited from Tyler’s proto-restoration was the problem of western expansion generated by Tyler’s pursuit of Texas. Annexation of the Lone Star Republic generated Polk’s remaining two policy goals: settlement of the Oregon question with Great Britain and the acquisition of California. Annexation of Texas also, however, sparked renewed concern over the expansion of slavery, supposedly settled in 1820 by the Missouri Compromise. Faced with competing territorial disputes in his presidency—with Great Britain over Oregon and with Mexico over the southern border of Texas—Polk opted for war with Mexico. The success of Polk’s war settled the question of Texas’s southern border and brought what would become almost the entire Southwest into the United States, including California. When Polk compromised with Great Britain over the Oregon boundary, free-state expansionists could not help but notice the difference in treatment. Polk was seen as someone who was willing to provoke a war for slavery, while compromising valid claims in Oregon (Silbey 2005, 109-16).

Polk’s expansionist policies created strong rifts within his own party. Van Buren’s faction believed political parties should be national in scope, and many northern Democrats became alienated by Polk’s pro-Southern agenda. They saw a party that had once concerned itself with preventing sectional discord now openly embracing policies that exacerbated such tensions. The Wilmot Proviso served as the symbol of this intrapartisan discontent. Drafted by David Wilmot, a Pennsylvania Democrat, this amendment to an appropriations bill sought to ban slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico. The amendment split the party along sectional lines. John C. Calhoun proposed the polar opposite of Wilmot—citizens of any state could take their property, including slaves, to any new territory. James Buchanan, Polk’s secretary of state, thought the solution was to extend the Compromise line to the Pacific, thus allowing slavery into any territory south of the line, but barring it north. Democrats lost control of the House in the 1846 midterm elections, and successful conclusion of the war with Mexico prompted California and New Mexico to seek territorial governments, causing the issue of slavery extension to become the central issue of the 1848 presidential race (Holt 1978, 50-56; Silbey 2005, 123-28; Silbey 2009, 40-41, 48-52).

Polk’s presidency goes down in history as one of the more consequential, especially of those that inhabit the nineteenth century. He set out to accomplish four major objectives, and he was largely successful in his endeavors. What is missing from historical accounts, however, is the extreme contingency of Polk’s success evinced by the impact of the aborted Whig repudiation project on Polk’s agenda. If we imagine a counterfactual in which Harrison did not die (or in which Harrison’s vice president was a solid supporter of Whig doctrine), it is easy to speculate that unified Whig government would have been successful in establishing a new National Bank and a higher tariff policy that would have supported vigorous internal improvements. Public judgment that Whig policies were successful in bringing the nation out of its economic slump might have led to a repudiation of Jacksonian power. Even with a Democratic victory in 1844, the new restoration president would have had to find a way to dismantle the Bank all over again, and ratchet down Whig tariff rates. Since it is unlikely a conventional Whig administration would have sought to acquire Texas, Democratic expansionist goals would have had to start from scratch in 1845.

Instead, Tyler’s accidental presidency placed into office an ally of the era’s dominant party. Although he could not further extend Jacksonian economic policies, he held them in place for Polk to complete the task, and Tyler’s affection for Texas accelerated Democratic ambitions in terms of territorial expansion. Polk inherited a situation in which Texas was already poised to enter the union. It is little wonder Polk was so successful in pushing the Jacksonian project to new levels. Tyler’s proto-restoration gave Polk a nearly four-year head start.

Partial Exile and Second Restoration

Although Polk was largely successful in settling issues from the founding period of the Jacksonian regime, the unpopularity of the Mexican War and the internal partisan rifts created by Polk’s expansionist strategies set the stage for the second Whig victory in 1848. Polk was forced to leave to his successor the question of slavery extension and statehood for territories acquired in the Mexican cession. Non-Southerners, including Democrats, began to see the “slavocracy” as responsible for the divisions in the country, and soon every issue came to be viewed through the lens of slavery extension. The three options on the policy table were Wilmot’s complete ban on slavery in the territories, Calhoun’s embrace of slavery in the territories, and extension of the Compromise. Polk favored the last, but a plan developed in 1847 by his vice president competed as a solution to this controversy, and it soon became a central element of the discourse in the Jacksonian coalition. That strategy became known as popular sovereignty, a doctrine that proposed to allow each territory or state to decide matters concerning slavery for itself. This option had the virtue of appealing to democratic impulses, while also shielding Congress from responsibility in the divisive issue. With Polk abdicating after one term, Michigan Senator Lewis Cass received the Democratic nomination for president, and proceeded to run as a supporter of popular sovereignty. The party platform explicitly declared that Congress had “no power under the Constitution to interfere with or control the domestic institutions of the several States,” a clear endorsement of Cass’s position. Declaring Wilmot “humbug,” Democratic campaigners argued that Cass would protect southern interests by letting the states and territories decide the issue of slavery (Holt 1978, 57; Holt 1999, 338; Silbey 2009, 52-53, 120-21, 158).

The resulting intrapartisan split was so bad that northern Democrats who opposed the extension of slavery, known as “Barnburners,” bolted from the party and joined Conscience Whigs—who split from their party over the nomination of slave-owning Zachary Taylor—to form the Free Soil Party. The core principle of this third-party effort was support of the Wilmot option, and the new party was led by none other than former Democratic President Martin Van Buren. This was Van Buren’s fourth try for the presidency in as many cycles, but whereas in 1836 he was the heir apparent to Jackson, he had now broken from the party he helped establish, spurned by the new generation of leadership (Silbey 2005, 136-39; Silbey 2009, 122-26).

Taylor was an ideal choice for the Whig campaign. A comparatively nonpartisan war hero who had no political record to speak of, Taylor styled himself as a man who would run and govern above parties. The complicated split-party dynamic propelled him to the White House (Holt 1978, 62-65; Silbey 2009, 142-45; Smith 1988, 39-42). Once again Democrats were exiled from power, but whereas in 1 840 they had seen themselves consigned to minority status in both houses of Congress, the exile in 1848 was only partial. For the first time in American history, a new president’s party failed to control either chamber of Congress. The Jacksonians retained a foothold of agenda-setting power in the legislature, limiting Taylor’s repudiative potential. Nevertheless, the new president was not a Democrat, which meant uncertain progress on the various issues raised by the Mexican cession. With a Democratic Congress on hand, Polk’s fears that Taylor would reverse his policies were overblown, but Taylor’s management of the territorial controversies would certainly be different than under a Cass presidency.

Taylor attempted to settle the territorial issues in his annual message to Congress, in which he proposed that California be admitted to the union and New Mexico be allowed to submit its application for statehood. He argued that both territories ought to become states under whatever constitutions they adopted. California had already drawn up an antislavery constitution, and it was likely New Mexico would do the same. Taylor’s plan drew little support in Congress, however, and the aging Henry Clay quickly constructed a congressional Whig alternative that attempted to resolve all outstanding issues in a way that gave each side something of what they wanted, while avoiding popular sovereignty as a solution. Democrats seized control of the compromise effort, and Clay found himself working next to Stephen Douglas, a supporter of popular sovereignty. Congress debated some aspects of popular sovereignty, and the doctrine was even included in measures dealing with Utah and New Mexico, but the omnibus plan crafted by Clay did not go as far as the popular sovereignty principle. Taylor opposed Clay’s efforts, leading to a very public rift between the two Whig leaders (Holt 1999, 485-502).

A convoluted deliberative process ensued involving cross-partisan movement on both sides of the debate. For the purposes of restoration dynamics, however, the important thing to focus on is the conflict over slavery extension. Taylor defended southern rights with respect to slavery, but he also supported the independence and integrity of territories acquired from Mexico in the war, particularly California and New Mexico, the latter of which was involved in a boundary dispute with Texas that threatened to become violent. Popular sovereignty was not an issue central to Taylor’s calculations. At one extreme were Calhoun and his allies, who opposed any measure that did not allow slavery into all the territories. At another extreme were those northern congressmen who insisted the Wilmot Proviso be applied to the new territories. Clay’s effort at compromise tried to walk a middle line, though it still shied away from an open embrace of popular sovereignty as a solution. Taylor and his allies feared the omnibus bill would delay settlement of the central dispute over California and that the emerging boundary lines worked to the disadvantage of New Mexico (Holt 1978, 80-86; Smith 1988, 129-51).

With the president threatening to veto the omnibus plan, the entire political calculus changed dramatically when Taylor unexpectedly died. Vice President Millard Fillmore, an outsider in Taylor’s administration who supported the compromise effort, moved quickly once he assumed the presidency to resolve matters. The omnibus bill collapsed, and Fillmore worked with Stephen Douglas to shepherd the various aspects of the compromise effort through Congress as a series of separate bills. Supporters of the Compromise of 1850 hoped the effort would settle the slavery extension controversy permanently—what Fillmore called a “final and irrevocable” settlement (Holt 1978, 90). But the Compromise did not go as far as southern Democrats preferred, and Free Soil Northerners understood that slavery might yet move into former Mexican territory (Holt 1978, 86-90; Silbey 2005, 148-51). So, although Fillmore and his allies hoped the Compromise constituted a final settlement of the slavery extension question, in fact it failed to satisfy the desires of southern Democrats, an essential bloc of the governing party. The popular sovereignty issue lingered on, waiting for a president who would take this doctrine to the next level.

Franklin Pierce became the inheritor of the Jacksonian mantle in 1852, and despite a campaign vacant of important issues, Pierce won in convincing fashion. With Democrats in control of Congress, Jacksonians were poised to restore what they took to be the nation’s only legitimate policy agenda to the center of American politics. While few of the original issues of the Jacksonian agenda remained to be accomplished, territorial expansion was the party’s one major piece of unfinished business, and popular sovereignty, a doctrine developed during Polk’s presidency and supported by Cass in the 1 848 election, emerged as the party’s primary mechanism to manage that agenda. With Whigs in the minority, Democrats anticipated that they could push through the completion of their goals.

Regime management does not proceed in predictable fashion, however, especially after opposition party interruptions. Territorial expansion became integrally tied to the question of slavery extension, which required Democrats to construct a solution. Popular sovereignty had arisen in 1847 as a mechanism to deal with the issue of slavery extension, and it was seen by adherents as a mainstream alternative to the Calhoun and Wilmot extremes. Settlement of the Mexican cession in 1850 did not resolve this controversy.

Entering the scene again was Stephen Douglas, who had long desired to organize the Nebraska area west of the Mississippi into a federal territory, an ambition wholly consistent with Jacksonian expansionism. Nebraska, however, lay north of the Compromise line and had been acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, which meant slavery was clearly forbidden there. Douglas embraced the popular sovereignty option in his original bill but avoided saying anything about the legitimacy of the Compromise. He needed the votes of southern Democrats, however, and their desire for moral approval of slavery made them committed to an overt repeal of the Compromise. Willing to pay that price for the sake of his larger objective, Douglas agreed to include a clause in the bill declaring the Compromise “inoperative,” thus giving local authorities power over slavery questions. Pierce, an expansionist who favored southern interests, signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act once it got through Congress. By pushing popular sovereignty into an area that had banned slavery for over three decades, Douglas and Pierce sparked the beginning of the end for Jacksonian supremacy (Foner 1970, 155-56; Gara 1991, 88-95; Holt 1978, 144-47; Silbey 2005, 155-59).

Some Whig leaders hoped to reconstitute their party along anti-secession and antiabolition lines, but the combination of sectional rifts and the rise of third-party movements that were fiercely anti-Democratic but also anti-Whig shattered the party forever. The anti-Democrat realignment in the North moved in the direction of the anti -immigrant and anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party and the antislavery Republican Party. An anti-Nebraska majority took control of the House in 1854, leading to a fierce and even violent polarization in American politics. Meanwhile, “Bleeding Kansas” became a symbol of Pierce’s weak administration, and Pierce, seeing slavery as a question of property, not morality, diminished the importance of the core issue dividing the country. Democrats divided over the application of popular sovereignty, and when the Supreme Court stepped in to settle matters in Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857, it only made things worse for the governing party. The Compromise, still supported by many northern Democrats, was declared unconstitutional, and the very foundation of popular sovereignty was undermined as the Court ruled that the territories were open to slavery regardless of the views of the people (Gara 1991,95-100, 126, l6l; Holt 1999,836-50; Magliocca 2007, 99-111; Silbey 2005, 162-65; Smith 1975, 23-29).

Interim Conclusion: The Early Democratic Restorationists

The experience of Democratic presidents following Whig control of the White House suggests a pattern. As the governing party begins to experience problems following the passing of the regime founder, the opposition party captures the White House, sending the governing party into metaphorical exile. Thus, the Harrison-led Whigs defeated the Depression-plagued Van Buren, and the Taylor-led Whigs defeated a party divided by Polk’s expansionist policies following the Mexican War. In both cases, Democrats viewed the Whig presidents as not entirely legitimate—candidates who won the office either by appearing in the guise of a Jackson-like war hero or by taking advantage of short-term problems.

Restoration presidents then recapture control of the White House as second-generation leaders but, in the process, inherit new issues. Opposition party interludes prevent advancement by the governing party on its agenda, causing the party to push more vigorously once it recaptures control. Harrison’s presidency was too brief to cause a great disruption in Jacksonian designs, but Tyler’s proto-restoration put the question of expansion squarely on the national agenda, and Polk’s successful prosecution of the Mexican War generated support for popular sovereignty in the Democratic Party as a mechanism for addressing the question of slavery in new territories. This development was hardly intentional. The core agenda item of the Jacksonian regime was expansion, not slavery. When that question inevitably got linked to slavery extension, regime leaders searched for a solution. That solution appeared to be popular sovereignty, seen as a possible middle ground between Wilmot and Calhoun. Democrats campaigned on that basis in 1 848 but were prevented from acting when the second Whig interlude pushed the Compromise of 1850 as the solution to the problem of slavery extension. Popular sovereignty was side-lined, to the frustration of some key players in the dominant party. But even though many from both parties considered the Compromise to be a final settlement of the slavery extension issue, the Democratic restoration in 1852 allowed party factions with unfinished business—Nebraska for Douglas and slavery extension for Southerners—to resurrect their pet causes. The application of popular sovereignty everywhere became the price Douglas paid for success in Nebraska.

We will never know what would have happened had Cass won the presidency in 1848 and pressed popular sovereignty as a solution to the territory-slavery issue instead of the Clay-Douglas compromise. But the impatience of the governing party during opposition presidencies leads to efforts by the governing party—or by factions in the governing party—to complete its agenda upon its restoration to power. The danger is that governing party success does not settle matters, nor does it make for continuing long-term control over the nation’s agenda. Just as Pierce and Douglas achieved short-term success with popular sovereignty, a new party arose to challenge the Democrats on the very issue the Kansas-Nebraska Act supposedly settled. The result was that just six years later, the secession crisis brought Democratic Party dominance to a close.

Harrison, McKinley, and Gilded Age Restoration

The long Republican era that stretched from I860 to 1932 began when the Whigs self-destructed in the mid-1850s, allowing the Republican Party to replace it as the second major party in American politics. But while party displacement may realign politics, it does not necessarily establish a new partisan regime. The Democratic Party split in I860 helped bring Republicans to power in Washington. Secession kept them there, and battlefield success solidified their control.

The First Exile of the Republican Regime

Central issues dividing the parties in the early Republican era included slavery and secession, both of which were resolved by the end of 1865, and Southern reintegration into the union made them moot points. Indeed, Lewis Gould argues that by the late 1870s the “traditional Republican ideology” was “increasingly irrelevant” (1970, 172). Newer issues included the ever-present tariff question, currency, veteran pensions, and civil rights for freed blacks. Of these issues, the tariff was of central importance to the majority of Republican regime managers. The cornerstone of the Republican economic agenda, party leaders argued that the tariff protected developing industries, closed out low-wage foreign competition, and kept factories at full production. It was the symbol of progress and prosperity. Democrats argued that the tariff increased prices without raising wages, played favorites with different sectors of the economy, and corrupted the political class (Gould 1970, 176-78; Morgan 1969, 169).

An unusually protracted period of regime management morphed into an era in which unified government was rare and presidential elections narrowly won. After two very close elections in 1876 and 1880, Democrats looked to 1884 as their opportunity to return to power. Having risen in less than three years from mayor of Buffalo to presidential candidate, Grover Cleveland was not invested in the national political battles that had marked the era. Good-government Republicans bolted from the GOP when it nominated the scandal-tainted James G. Blaine for the presidency. Cleveland capitalized on Blaine’s missteps late in the campaign in New York to win one of the closest elections in history. After six straight victories, Republicans were sent into exile. The exile was hardly decisive, for in addition to the exceptionally close vote, Democrats failed to take the Senate and lost ground in their majority in the House. Nevertheless, the Cleveland victory put the Republican agenda on hold (Summers 2000; Welch 1988, 21-42).

Cleveland came from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, and he was not temperamentally inclined to direct partisan attacks. Inheriting a split-party Congress, he promised not to exert executive influence on legislation. The consequent lack of an ambitious policy agenda sent the signal that, while Republicans in exile might not advance their own agenda, they would not likely lose much ground with Cleveland in the White House. This was most clear on the currency issue. The Republican Party had acquired the reputation of being the guardian of sound finance and honest money, inclined toward the gold standard instead of the free coinage of silver, though during the Gilded Age the nation was on a bimetallic standard. Cleveland was also a supporter of the gold standard. Concerned about inflation and a possible threat to the nation’s gold reserves—the Bland-Allison Silver Coinage Act of 1878 required the government to purchase silver each month and coin it into silver dollars, which were then redeemable in gold—Cleveland sought repeal of Bland-Allison even before he assumed office in early 1885. Congress ignored his efforts, but when Democrats attempted to force the Treasury to use all money over its reserve of $100 million to buy and destroy government bonds—an act seen as threatening the gold reserve—Cleveland worked to kill the resolution. Although the Democratic Party was divided on these issues, Cleveland’s actions created no tensions with the exiled Republicans (Calhoun 2008, 42-44; Merrill 1957, 109-15; Nevins 1932, 269-270; Welch 1988, 81-82).

Two areas in particular, however, saw Cleveland move to obstruct the Republican agenda. The first was veterans’ pensions. Republican Party nurturing of Civil War pensions became an integral part of the party’s political machine in the North, and the party had a vested interest in making pension laws as liberal as possible. By the time of Cleveland’s presidency, pensions consumed one-fourth of the federal budget. Abuse of the system was rampant, with Congress passing thousands of special bills reversing Pension Board rejections for specific individuals. Cleveland took it upon himself to veto the most egregious examples, and although he signed far more pension bills than he vetoed, he vetoed where none had vetoed before, often with very sarcastic language. In 1887, the Dep endent Pension Bill expanded the definition of disabled to include old age. Passed with near-unanimous Republican support, Cleveland vetoed the bill (Calhoun 2008, 36-38; Morgan 1969, 254-57; Welch 1988, 62-64). Although hardly furthering a Democratic Party agenda, the image Cleveland created antagonized Republicans, and his actions obstructed Republican efforts at interest group management.

The second area of attempted obstruction was more consequential. Facing a budget surplus of over $100 million by the end of fiscal year 1887, Cleveland launched his reelection effort by leveling a broadside against the protective tariff, the central doctrine of Republican economic policy. Cleveland devoted his entire annual message to the issue, calling the tariff a “vicious, inequitable, and illogical source of unnecessary taxation” and arguing that the “simple and plain duty which we owe the people is to reduce the taxation to the necessary expenses of an economical operation of the government.” Cleveland’s assault prompted a counterattack from James G. Blaine, who argued in favor of the tariff system and accused the Democratic Party of being “a standing menace to the industrial prosperity of the country” (Calhoun 2008, 45-54; Morgan 1969, 274-78). The attack on the tariff constituted a genuine attempt to undermine and rescind the central doctrine of the party’s long-term agenda.

Cleveland’s move against the tariff established the context for the Republican restoration under Benjamin Harrison. The Republican agenda had remained static for four years, and Cleveland’s decision to make the tariff the central theme of the presidential election crystalized matters for both sides. The result was yet another very close election, but Harrison’s victory came with a Republican takeover of the House and Senate as well, giving them control of all three elective branches of government, a rare example of unified government in the Gilded Age. Republicans believed they had a new mandate to govern, with Harrison articulating his understanding of “the large and generous expectations which are in the minds of the people”—his view that the party had been restored to its rightful place, with an injunction to proceed with its agenda (Calhoun 2008, 185). Historians, however, are generally united on the meaning of the election, arguing that “the people voted for protection, not a higher tariff, and clearly wanted taxation reduced,” favoring “a policy of caution and prudence” (Morgan 1969, 319, emphasis in original; Faulkner 1959, 95). Despite narrow majorities, Republicans became “dangerously overconfident” in their restoration to power (Morgan 1969, 319). The party overinterpreted the election as a “mandate for change” (Socolofsky and Spetter 1987, 47).

Harrison and the Billion-Dollar Restoration

It is, perhaps, difficult, when one party controls both Congress and the presidency, to resist taking advantage of that institutional dynamic. Harrison’s experience exemplifies the dangers of restoration politics. Historians have labeled the first half of Harrison’s presidency the “billion-dollar Congress,” so-called because of its historically high spending levels. It was one of the more active congresses in history, marked by a lengthy 303-day session that saw Republicans engage in what some analysts call a “lavish expenditure of public funds” as they passed new laws with “reckless abandon” (Faulkner 1959, 47; Socolofsky and Spetter 1987, 96). Led by Speaker of the House Thomas Reed, Republicans spent 1890 pursuing an aggressive partisan attack that sought advancement of the entire Republican agenda. For example, the Dependent and Disability Pensions Act reversed Cleveland’s curtailing of veterans pensions, providing funds for widows, minors, and dependent parents, and doubling the number of pensioners. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act sought to address the problem of monopoly control in businesses that crossed state lines. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which Harrison hoped would end the silver controversy, replaced the Bland-Allison Act and required the Treasury to purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver every month, in an attempt to appease partisans of both gold and silver (Faulkner 1959, 97-106; Gould 1970, 180-81; Morgan 1969, 343-49; Socolofsky and Spetter 1987, 37, 53-60).

Two efforts merit highlighting. The first was the McKinley Tariff Act, which was the strongest GOP effort to forward its core agenda. Despite the persistence of budget surpluses, Republicans proposed to raise tariff rates. From their perspective, budget surpluses could be used for new government programs. The McKinley Tariff raised rates to 48 percent, their highest levels in peacetime. James G. Blaine was instrumental in influencing congressional Republicans to include a reciprocity amendment, which allowed the president to impose duties unilaterally on certain items if individual countries refused to make concessions when it came to duties levied on American products. This move marked an evolution in tariff policy and set the stage for reciprocity treaties with foreign countries. But the act was ill timed, and the public believed the tariffaci was responsible for rising prices just as the 1890 midterm elections approached (Faulkner 1959, 105-09; Morgan 1969, 349-53; Socolofsky and Spetter 1987, 49-52).

The second policy was an elections bill designed to ensure the voting rights of freed blacks in congressional races. Harrison highlighted voting rights and civil rights in his 1889 annual message to Congress, stating rhetorically, “When and under what conditions is the black man to have a free ballot? When is he in fact to have those full civil rights which have so long been his in law? When is that equality of influence which our form of government was intended to secure to the electors to be restored?” (Socolofsky and Spetter 1987, 62). Introduced in the House by Henry Cabot Lodge, the elections bill provided for federal supervision of all congressional races throughout the country. Federal circuit courts would arbitrate election procedures in federal races, based on petitions originating in each district. The history of disfranchisement of black voters in the South made this an important issue for many Republicans, who understood the need to regain a foothold in that section of the country. Thus, the bill was a logical development of the Republican agenda, representing an attempt to complete the promise of Reconstruction. However, Democrats labeled the effort the “force bill,” playing on the image of federal troops dictating matters in the South. Although the bill said nothing about the use of federal troops to enforce the provisions, the bill agitated sectional tensions, and it was effectively demagogued by its enemies. Despite support by majorities in both houses of Congress and the presidency, Democrats filibustered the bill to death (Morgan 1969, 339-343; Socolofsky and Spetter 1987, 60-65; Valelly 2004, 246-48).

These events highlighted the general thrust of restoration politics. When some complained about the level of spending in Congress, pointing to the billion-dollar price tag, Reed reportedly responded, “This is a billion-dollar country” (Faulkner 1959, 111). The general impression for many was of a national party that was hyperactive and spendthrift, with a tariff bill that led to rising prices. Republican activism also created problems at the local level, where religious and cultural differences between the two parties worked against the GOP. Pietistic Republicans, motivated by the same impulse that had driven the push against slavery, became embroiled in battles at the local level concerning prohibition, Sabbatarian legislation, and the mandating of English in both public and private schools. Republican efforts generated ethno-cultural divisions with German and Scandinavian Americans, not to mention Catholics. A reputation for injudicious activism at the national level became linked to moralistic meddling at the local level. The added danger of rising agrarian unrest spelled trouble for Republicans (Gould 1970, 181-82; Morgan 1969, 354-55; Socolofsky and Spetter 1987, 89; Williams 1978, 45-47).

Republicans overplayed their hand, and the result was a shellacking of epic proportions in the 1890 midterm elections. They lost dozens of House seats, reduced from a majority to a pathetic 88 seats, the third highest seat loss by a political party in American history. Losses included several veteran incumbents, while a young William Jennings Bryan won his first election. Democrats again controlled the chamber, in numbers unmatched by any other party to that time. And, while Harrison remained active in foreign policy issues, his domestic agenda ground to a halt for his final two years (Socolofsky and Spetter 1987, 89-93; Williams 1978, 50-53). The billion-dollar restoration appeared to be stopped in its tracks.

Second Exile, Averted Disjunction, and Rebirth

Harrison’s ineptness as a party leader and the rise of the Populists paved the way for Cleveland’s comeback and the second Republican exile in 1892. Republicans were demoralized, and Harrison proved to be an ineffective motivator. His poor leadership created tensions with many officeholders, who were already looking ahead to the next election cycle. Harrison’s only campaign activity was his letter of acceptance, in which he reiterated Republican doctrine. The tariff was patriotic and the key to prosperity, bimetallism was the solution to the currency question, and free elections should involve neither force nor fraud. The letter was a weak plea for continued restoration. The Democratic platform, by contrast, called the McKinley tariff “the culminating atrocity of class legislation” (Morgan 1969, 395-403, 419). Cleveland himself made one appearance, spending most of his time writing letters criticizing the tariff (Morgan 1969, 395-403, 417-27; Welch 1988, 106-09; Williams 1978, 57-64).

Cleveland captured the White House for the second time in the strongest presidential victory in twenty years. Not only did Cleveland win a clear personal victory, Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, giving the party unified control of government for the first time since before the Civil War. Republicans were again sent into exile, this time in decisive fashion. Professor Woodrow Wilson argued that the Democratic Party was now the nation’s new majority party. The Atlanta Constitution declared, “Democratic victory this time means the inevitable dissolution of the republican party, and the splendor of yesterday’s democratic victory is proof positive that the day of republican dismemberment is not far distant” (Williams 1970, 140). Similarly, the New York Times wrote, “It is a revolution, and no Republican can even hope to see his party again in power for a long term of years” (Williams 1970, 140; see also Welch 1988, 111).

From a purely partisan perspective, these premature assessments made some sense. Impatient waiting for the first Cleveland presidency to end, Republicans overinterpreted the results of their 1888 victory. Their successful effort to enact most of their domestic and economic agenda provoked a backlash in the midterm elections. Just as unified Whig government in 1 840 threatened Democratic dominance, so now Cleveland and the Democrats were presented an opportunity in 1892 to enact an agenda that would capture the support of the nation. If so, their decisive two-stage victory in 1890 and 1892 would be seen as inaugurating a new era, relegating Harrison’s presidency to the status of disjunction—that sad category of presidents held responsible for the repudiation of their party and setting the stage for a new political era.

Fortune can be cruel, however. Although Democrats were successful in dismantling statutes that enforced Fifteenth Amendment rights, within weeks of Cleveland’s inauguration the nation sank into the greatest depression in history to that time. Soup kitchens were called “Cleveland Cafes,” an indication of which party took the blame. In response, Cleveland rejected his own party to work with Republicans on currency issues. Believing the depression was caused by diminishing gold reserves, Cleveland sought repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, a move that split his party even as it drew more Republican support. An effort to take on a united Republican Party on the issue of the tariff only served to further isolate Cleveland, to the point that his own Senate rejected two of his Supreme Court nominees. When Cleveland then used federal power to break the Pullman strike, his party deserted him (Morgan 1969, 446-76; Valelly 2004, 131; Welch 1988, 115-51; Williams 1978, 71-93).

Democrats were buried in the 1894 midterm elections, experiencing the largest transfer of congressional strength in history (Morgan 1969, 476-479; Williams 1978, 93-94). Cleveland was spurned by his party, which turned to William Jennings Bryan in 1896. With Democrats taking the blame for the depression, Republicans got the upper hand in the currency battle, and William McKinley, emblem of orthodox Republican tariff policies, confirmed the GOP sweep of two years earlier, winning by the largest popular margin in over 20 years, taking unified control of the national government, and inaugurating a new era of Republican supremacy that would dominate politics for a generation. This new era would not be one merely of restoration, but genuine rebirth. Along with a return to prosperity during McKinley ‘s first year in office, the party passed a new tariff bill, ended the debate over bimetallism by shifting to the gold standard, and set the stage for more vigorous action on the trust issue and a more active foreign policy (Gould 1980). More soberly, it also pulled back on its civil rights efforts (Valelly 2004, 131-32).

While Skowronek (1993) rejects the reconstruction label for McKinley, the 1896 election has long been labeled a realignment (Burnham 1970; Sundquist 1983), and others argue that McKinley marked the beginning of a protracted reconstruction process (Nichols and Myers 2010). Clarity on this debate can be purchased by comparing McKinley ‘s victory to those of Harrison and Cleveland. All three men won victories that brought unified congresses, with the promise of significant policy achievement. Harrison overreached during his restoration, and the party was repudiated. Cleveland failed in more spectacular fashion when presented with the opportunity for reconstruction. McKinley ‘s accomplishment was durable and long-lasting.


It is fascinating to consider the counterfactual of a Harrison reelection victory in 1892. This restoration president played his part to perfection, leading his party in an explosion of backlogged agenda items. Had he won that close race, he would have inherited the depression of 1893, and a Republican Party that had dominated the economic agenda since 1861 surely would have gotten the blame, paving the way for a Bryan victory in 1896, with the currency issue decided in favor of silver. In that case, Harrison would have become a president of disjunction.

As things stood, the pattern established in the Jacksonian era repeated itself. The end of Reconstruction saw the passing of the major Republican agenda, and the party entered a period of tightly fought close elections marked by frequent alternation in control of Congress. Cleveland’s first victory sent Republicans into metaphorical exile, but they never viewed Cleveland’s election as truly legitimate, for they were the rightful definers of national politics. Cleveland’s first term prevented the governing party from advancing its core agenda, and when Harrison recaptured the White House Republicans pushed their program with exceptional vigor. As in the Jacksonian era, the impatience of the governing party during an opposition presidency interlude led to efforts by the governing party to complete its agenda upon its restoration to power. The result was large-scale repudiation in 1890 and 1892, with the accompanying prospect of political disjunction. Where it took Democratic restoration politics in the 1850s two terms to self-destruct, it took the GOP in the Gilded Age only two years. The Republican position was salvaged by the luck of losing in 1892. Averting disjunction, the party got a second lease on life.

This summary glosses over some interesting contrasts between the two eras, for the focus of the restoration agenda in each was quite different. Latter-phase Jacksonians did not adopt popular sovereignty as their core issue; that remained territorial expansion. The status of slavery in the territories arose as a consequence of the expansion agenda. And because the slavery extension issue cut through both parties, it became an exceptionally divisive issue for both. Popular sovereignty, designed as a middle ground between competing divergent visions, never succeeded in bringing unity to the party, even as key leaders, including the president, made it a central item in the party’s agenda. For Gilded Age Republicans, the dynamic was quite different. The core Republican agenda was accomplished with astonishing swiftness at Appomattox, just four years after the party took power. New issues arose focusing on veteran pensions and civil rights, but the party’s core concern centered on the tariff. So, while popular sovereignty was an internally divisive strategy invented to manage the core Jacksonian agenda item of territorial expansion, the tariff was itself a core agenda item that united the Republican Party, relatively free of secondary concerns. This allowed the party to be much more unified in its restoration efforts under Harrison—and to suffer a much stronger blowback in response.

Nevertheless, while these differences are important if we are to understand how restoration politics works itself out in various eras, the underlying pattern of exile, restoration, and overreach is remarkably similar and raises the question of whether this is an integral part of the larger pattern so often seen in cyclical models of American political history.

Implications for Contemporary Politics

The nineteenth century restoration presidents set a pattern that has been repeated in successive political eras. Further research is necessary to show whether the pattern linking overreach to disjunction is an integral part of the collapse of partisan regimes, but a quick glance indicates that the experience related here has been repeated in the twentieth century. The system established by McKinley was interrupted by Wilson’s opposition presidency, which in turn was followed by Harding’s “return to normalcy.” In just over two terms, the party ran aground against the Great Depression. Similarly, Roosevelt’s New Deal system was interrupted by Eisenhower’s opposition presidency, which was in turn followed by Kennedy’s attempt to “get America moving again”—to restore Roosevelt’s progressive activism in domestic policy. Within two terms, however, the New Frontier/Great Society project ran aground at the 1968 Chicago convention.

This pattern has repeated itself in the contemporary era. The “Reagan revolution” was interrupted by Clinton’s opposition presidency, which took advantage of the recession that had started under George Herbert Walker Bush. The governing party never saw Clinton as a completely legitimate president, particularly after Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994. In 2000, they turned to George W Bush, whose campaign pledge to “restore honor and dignity to the White House” was an explicit appeal for restoration. Bush pursued a restoration agenda that included large tax cuts, support for several social conservative measures, nomination of conservatives to the Supreme Court, expansion of social service delivery to faith-based institutions, and recasting of New Deal era social programs to create an “ownership society.” Bush achieved significant success in many areas, but as is typical of restoration presidents, his efforts bought trouble for his party, as did the president’s decision to launch a war for regime change in Iraq following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Early success in Iraq, and before Iraq in Afghanistan, which had harbored the terrorists who attacked the United States, was sufficient to secure Bush’s reelection in 2004, but internal party strife arose as progress faltered in Iraq, and with Bush’s embrace of increased federal activity in education and health care. His effort to walk a centrist line on immigration reform likewise divided his party. While the conduct of the war in Iraq set the stage for the Republican repudiation, the “Great Recession” that erupted during the fall campaign in 2008 ended GOP hopes for a sixth Reagan term (Campbell 2010; Jacobson 2009).

This rough summary demonstrates the durability of the pattern begun in the nineteenth century. Skowronek describes the “orthodox-innovation” of the regime affiliate as oxymoronic, and a challenge that becomes increasingly more difficult as time goes by. Where the regime builder and opposition president have significant flexibility to respond to problems, the regime affiliate becomes inflexible and has a tendency to overreach (Skowronek 2008, 135-40). But where Skowronek attributes this dynamic to a fatal flaw inherent to the category—the need of the president simultaneously to adhere to the true faith while also acting independently—the dynamics of restoration politics suggest that it is the interplay between opposition president and restoration president that gives the latter’s agenda-setting task its problematic quality. It is the connection of this specific regime affiliate to a preceding opposition president that motivates restoration politics, which seem so often to lead to disjunction and repudiation.

This conclusion raises interesting questions about contemporary politics. Barack Obama’s position in political time is that either of a new regime builder or an opposition president. If the former, such transformational leadership would place Bush in the disjunction camp. The danger for the Democrats, however, is self-delusion. With striking regularity, the opposition party has won a strong electoral victory and interpreted that victory as an opportunity for reconstruction. We have seen it in this analysis with Whigs in 1840 and Democrats in 1892. Something about winning unified control of government causes the opposition party to overreach, and that frontal assault on the governing party leads to defeat, despite temporary legislative success. Mere electoral success in 2008 is no proof that Obama is a regime builder, and the rocky nature of Obama’s successes and failures raises the possibility that he is less the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt and more the reincarnation of Grover Cleveland.

But this interpretation of Obama creates an even more problematic dynamic for the GOP. At one time, Republicans hoped Bush would solidify a durable partisan majority for a new generation (Fineman 2004, 22), playing the part of a modern-day McKinley. Those hopes died in the deserts of the Middle East and the fires of the financial crisis. Is the GOP resurgent again? There is precedent for opposition presidents to sandwich restoration presidents—the two Whig generals around Polk and the two Clevelands around Harrison. Republicans must hope that Bush is Benjamin Harrison to the fortyfifth president’s McKinley—not Polk to Pierce. But if Obama is another opposition president, then his GOP successor will be another restoration president—and this analysis suggests what that might look like. Success may depend on whether the Tea Party movement represents a healthy revitalization of conservatism or a schismatic populist faction that tears the party apart. Clarity requires us to identify accurately the core issue analog to Pierce’s popular sovereignty or Harrison’s tariff. But the lesson is that setbacks for Democrats today do not forecast long-term success for the governing party. The GOP would be well advised to understand the dynamics of restoration politics—if only to learn how to avoid them.