As a well-over-40 guy, I can remember not only the heydays of Democratic control of Congress, but also as a young man something of the way congressional Republicans acted 'way back when when they were in the minority. I am struck by many similarities in party perceptions and behavior when comparing then to now -- plus two big differences.
Republicans in the minority were an aggressive opposition party. They got good press daily. They conveyed a clear message. In today's parlance, the G.O.P. of yesteryear was just as skilled then as it is today in "framing the issue", staying on message, and working the press.
Congressional Democrats by contrast almost always were fractured and spoke with too many irreconciable inconsistencies, even when in the majority and even with a Democrat in the White House. In some ways, it often seemed the congressional Democrats were more contentious against a sitting Democratic president than a sitting Republican president. The only surcease in that was during the first year or so of the LBJ administration, after Kennedy's assassination and before the war in Vietnam started to show on the public's radar screen.
I take it from Will Rogers' famous line ("I'm not a member of any organized political party -- I'm a Democrat") that this had been the case for many decades before my time.
Of course, those were the days when the Democratic majority depended on a coalition of Southern incumbents (mostly racist, populist, and in foreign affairs liberal) and Northern liberals. But that doesn't qualify as much of a difference. Today, a Democratic majority depends on a coalition of Northern liberals, West coast environmentalists, and Southern religious blacks.
In days of yore, Republicans were essentially perceived by the public as the "pro-business" and "anti-communist" and "isolationist" party; Democrats as the "working man's" party and the party of "eggheads". (Ironically, given today's situation, every so often a national Republican would accuse Democrats of being "the war party" -- the evidence being who was in the White when we entered W.W. I, W.W. II, and the Korean War.)
I don't see any telling differences in any of that with today.
The first thing that has changed is, We The People. There was a day when Americans were proud to consider themselves a "working person." Now, they all want to fantacize about striking it rich in their 401k's or the real estate market. (With the spendthrift ways of the Bush administration, a lot of people are in for a very rude awkening). We all know the anecdotal evidence -- the disability client driving away from his lawyer's office with a Vote Reagan sticker visible on his bumper; the fellow facing bankruptcy who votes for the Senator who supportss 'reforming' bankruptcy, etc. etc.
Businessmen (and by association Republicans) in the late '50s and '60s were widely considered slightly unsavory -- just interested in money, not at all concerned about the public weal. Now, despite Enron and all the rest -- ethical scandals more outrageous than anything even Warren Harding could dream of, much less administrations in the '60s, '70s, and '80s -- the public yawns or, worse, secretly thinks His only crime was getting caught. How stupid of him.
For this, I largely blame, in order --
... Television and its dumbing-down of our citizens; and
... the utter failure of past Democratic administrations and Democratic congresses to set aright the devastating NLRA amendments and anti-labor rulings which the Republicans manipulated over two decades to reduce the power of unions. It's amazing, really, that the Democrats never bothered when in power to shore up and enhance the one sure base that united Northern and Southern branches of the party: labor.
The second thing that's changed is that all the stuffing seems to have been torn out of the congressional Democrats with very few exceptions (Russ Feingold chief among them, and of course the late Paul Wellstone). They still speak with many cacaphonous voices and can't seem to agree on the time of day, but now all those voices are saying nothing coherent (e.g. "The president needs a plan for Iraq, but I'm not saying we should pull out or commit more troops") and they whine far too much ("He shouldn't be calling us names on the anniversary of 9-11"). In a word, the Demcorats are just as incompetent in the role of an opposition party as Bush and the Republicans are at running the government.
For this, I largely blame three things --
... the degraded state of journalism (that's "journalism", not "television" -- being over 40, I know there is supposed to be a difference); and
... what is known as the "Beltway mentality." Too many once-upon-a-time journalists (Bob Woodward, Cokie Roberts, Juan Williams, etc. etc.) have sold their souls to climb the Fox ladder to stardom; and
... the particular Democrats we have sent to Washington. It's not that they are all millionaires (John Corzine was developing well enough) or want to be millionaires, it's that most of them just don't seem very different in character from the Republicans they want to replace. All of them spend more time preening, seeking the adoration of the same tight little circle of Georgetown social doyens, and thinking about how to keep their jobs than they do working for the people who sent them there.
Win or lose this November, the Democratic party needs to be thoroughly reformed and all of the self-centered putzes (think Lieberman) purged. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is a perpetual see-saw where Republicans and Democrats trade back and forth ten or fewer House seats every two years, the leadership included. The worst is a long half century or more out in the cold -- similar to the Robber Baron era after Reconstruction through the first third of the 20th century (1876-1932).