By Stanley Kutler
Mercifully, the midterm election cycle is nearing its end. Both parties, we learn, are planning their “postmortem assessments.” The Daily Beast’s recent headline is a sign of the times: “Why Obama Can’t Lose in 2012.” Plan ahead.
For the past year, the media, reflecting disenchantment with Barack Obama, their very own rock star, have “predicted” huge Democratic losses for 2010. Like blackbirds who fly off the line (as Eugene McCarthy once said), the media follow in lock step. We have heard ad nauseam that Democratic losses are inevitable—the governing party always suffers a setback in the midterm elections—or so we are told. But it is not always so; and further, we can ask if the Democrats’ troubles are not so much about what they did, but rather, what they did not do.
In the 1934 midterm elections, two years after the launching of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the president and Democrats vigorously defended their programs. No, they had not solved the Depression—not by a long shot—but nevertheless they fought hard to retain their authority.
FDR burst on the scene with his nomination acceptance speech in 1932, boldly announcing “a new deal for America.” After his election he brought new ideas and new faces to Washington. After serving in three previous administrations, Andrew Mellon, the self-advertised “greatest secretary of the treasury since Alexander Hamilton,” was gone. FDR appointed no Summers, Geithner or Bernanke to continue the failed policies of the past.
FDR said in his inaugural address, “Our primary task is to put people to work.” Along the way, he offered a cast of villains he believed responsible for the economic disaster, and he never let his audiences forget. Americans had clear, constant reminders of Herbert Hoover, the “money-changers in the temple” and “economic royalists.” He knew the perps, accomplices and accessories that “caused” the Great Depression. Such attacks today would be almost unthinkable—unless one gave up campaign contributions.
The initial New Deal measures had only modest success. But the Democrats reformed the banking structure and made the breathtaking move to have government as the employer of last resort. The prospects of hope, and indeed employment, for many replaced the profound pessimism of two years earlier. In 1933, Congress established the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and the Civil Works Administration to directly employ people. Today, we have no such proposals. Democrats supinely react with the mantra of tax credits as if they are a panacea for providing immediate relief for the unemployed.
FDR and the Democrats seized the moment after the 1932 elections, and they proudly defended their actions in campaigning for the 1934 midterms. Meanwhile, the president was reviled across the land, but largely along class lines. The attacks were personal. Some whispered President “Rosenfield,” with all its sinister connotations, similar to today’s tea party slogan of “Take Our Country Back.” A Republican congressional nominee in Wisconsin said that Roosevelt was a “man who can’t stand on his own feet without crutches.” “That man” was hated. A New Yorker cartoon, showed folks in top hats and evening gowns, shouting to neighbors in a brownstone: “We are going to the Trans-Lux [movie theater] to hiss Roosevelt.”
The Republican Party dutifully offered token, restrained opposition. More formidable efforts came from the Liberty League, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. The administration’s enemies were transparent, with open backing from the wealthy establishment. The du Ponts, the Morgans, the Rockefellers and large segments of the business community wielded their influence and power. Today’s right-wingers derived a lesson and now hide behind well-financed, well-organized opposition that portrays itself as “spontaneous” and “grass-roots.”
In the 1930s the Liberty League bemoaned the “loss of individual liberty,” the specter of communism, the supposed destruction of the Constitution and probably the passing of apple pie. To yesterday’s naysayers, President Roosevelt forcibly replied: “Plausible self-seekers and theoretical diehards will tell you of the loss of individual liberty. Answer this question … [:] Have you lost any of your rights or liberty or constitutional freedom of action and choice?”
FDR called out his enemies and threw down the gauntlet. For those business spokesmen who demanded an end to regulatory legislation, he bluntly replied, “if we were to listen to [this] … type, the old law of the tooth and the claw would reign in our Nation once more.” His opponents insisted that “liberty” was at stake, but FDR forcibly retorted: “I am not for a return to that definition of liberty, under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few.”
To be sure, not all businessmen attacked the president. Thomas Lamont, who worked for J.P. Morgan, believed FDR and his administration offered “the only hope as a bulwark for sane policies.” Lamont, noting the nation readily spent $30 billion in World War I, asked why should anyone “complain about spending five or six billion dollars to keep people from starving.” Today’s cost of feeding our national security machine at the expense of the nation’s internal needs undoubtedly would have appalled Lamont. How many Democrats or Republicans will criticize our Iraq and Afghanistan adventures and instead advocate comparable expenses in behalf of the jobless?
Democrats in 1934 routed the Republicans, increasing their margin in the House from 313 to 322 and their Senate majority from 60 to 69 (of 96 members), with the GOP losing 10 seats, including that of Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, who shifted to a “Progressive” label. The new Democratic ranks included a young Sen. Harry Truman. Today’s Republican scare machine has stirred the passions about Obamacare and the Democratic “socialist” program. But when Republican candidates are caught advocating the privatization of Social Security, they hastily retreat, promising to “save” Social Security. And then we have the well-financed tea party folk howling that government must keep hands off their Medicare. Social Security and Medicare are great historical achievements. Democrats dutifully defend them, so why now shy from activist, interventionist programs? Rush Limbaugh, Mitch McConnell, et al., doth make cowards of them all.
Democrats instead have buckled under all kinds of assaults, no matter how wrong or absurd they may be. The “death panel” controversy of a year ago was built on a lie, irresponsibly buoyed by a media frenzy. Democrats nevertheless cringed, blinked and remained on the defensive against the charge. President Obama is smeared as a noncitizen, and again the Democrats confront the accusation only meekly and timidly.
Unlike the Democrats of 1934, Democrats now focus on their local campaigns and have failed to offer the nation a coherent message. They should have the microphone, but they do not. They have the lesson and triumphs of the midterm elections of 1934 clearly in front of them. Democrats have ignored them only at their own peril.
But “Obama’s the One,” and he must bear a large burden for a failure to lead, for his pursuit of the chimera of bipartisanship, and for confronting the economic disaster only from the “top-down” of a stimulus. He failed to arouse and rally the nation, and he offered Democratic members of Congress few incentives.
Now the president desperately tries to recover his voice and identity of 2008. To be sure, he is handicapped by timid, anemic Democratic candidates who once provided the chorus for “change” yet now stand mute about their support for “health care” and “financial reform.” Some reforms: Private health insurance costs continue to soar and no legislation has curbed the financial community’s excesses that brought us to this point.
Obama and the Democrats, unlike FDR and his party members seven decades ago, allowed the foxes into the henhouse. Lawrence Summers and his allies assumed key positions. As Bill Clinton’s secretary of the treasury, he championed repeal of the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, which had served this nation well and contributed to five decades of unrivaled prosperity, lasting until the policies of the Reagan-Clinton era. Further, Summers bluntly thwarted any attempts to regulate financial derivatives. Two years of Summers redux merely has applied a progressive veneer for the maintenance of failed policies.
What a difference two years makes! Gloom and despair lie over many Obama supporters. The right has few legitimate grievances, aside from the wear and tear on their vocal cords. The left must realize that Obama’s first two years is a time of opportunities lost. His pursuit of some kind of bipartisan consensus proved futile. The prospects now for any kind of meaningful legislation—the kind he promised—are bleak, aside from tax breaks for any group that makes large campaign contributions.
As always, we have the politics of fear. The Republicans are wily veterans of such campaigning and governing. Sad to say, that is truly where bipartisanship truly reigns. To offer only an argument that the alternative is worse does not say much for your own case.
Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings.
AP / Ralph Wilson
A crowd of supporters cheers Vice President Joe Biden at a rally at Penn State University in State College, Pa., on Sept. 28.