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October 29, 2012 6:00 pm
American presidential elections are not only referendums on the future but also on the lessons the US draws from its past. The 2012 race is a case in point. The likely result is unclear: Republican challenger Mitt Romney is ahead of incumbent Democrat Barack Obama by a 48 per cent to 47 per cent margin, according to Real Clear Politics. But if it were to happen, a Romney victory would undermine the national story the US has told itself for about 70 years.
That lesson is that, even in straitened economic circumstances, most Americans do not want and will not reward politically a vast expansion of the size and scope of government.
The Obama Democrats came to office in 2009 convinced that economic distress would make Americans more supportive of increasing the role of the state. This was the message passed down from the great historians of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr, graceful writers whose books were bestsellers after the second world war. These authors described a nation in which most voters were grateful for economic redistribution and, every generation or so, would support another round of it.
I take a different view. The New Deal historians based their analysis on the 1932 and 1936 presidential elections. Roosevelt won a sweeping 57 per cent of the vote in 1932, with Democrats gaining support across nearly all parts of the country. He won with an even bigger majority (61 per cent) in 1936. But his gains were uneven. He lost ground in the countryside and small southern towns, while making gains in cities.
These gains, the New Dealers argued, were a response to the redistribution policies of the second New Deal, enacted in 1935, including the pro-trade union Wagner Act, social security, welfare provision and high tax rates on high earners.
There is one problem with this explanation. In 1934’s congressional elections, Roosevelt’s Democrats made similar gains in cities and suffered similar losses in small towns and farm areas. This could not have been the result of legislation not yet enacted or proposed. It must have been a response to the first New Deal programmes enacted in 1933, such as the National Recovery Act with its 700-plus wage and price-setting councils. The aim was to break the deflationary spiral by propping up wages and prices. Democrats were rewarded for restoring economic order, not economic redistribution.
In addition, when the effects of redistributionist policies were felt after 1936, they became widely unpopular. The economy went into severe recession in 1937 and companies refused to invest in new workers – a “capital strike”, New Dealers said. Republicans gained 80 seats in the 1938 midterm election. Roosevelt was re-elected in 1940 and again in 1944 – but only as a seasoned leader in a time of world war. On domestic issues, polling suggests he would have lost.
The “capital strike” and lingering high unemployment sound much like the American economy today. The Republican gain of 63 House seats in 2010 looks much like the election of 1938. Polls indicate majorities oppose the 2009 stimulus package and the “Obamacare” healthcare legislation.
The proposition that economic distress would make Americans more supportive of big government policies and economic redistribution has been tested and has been disproved about as thoroughly as any abstract proposition can be disproved in the messy world of real-time politics. That is why Mr Obama has not been talking much about the stimulus package or Obamacare during this campaign cycle. Most of his advertising budget and his rhetoric as he barnstorms around the country have consisted of attacks on Mr Romney. This seemed to give him an edge, particularly in the swing states of Florida, Virginia and Ohio, with their 60 electoral votes, until the first presidential debate of October 3. Mr Romney’s sparkling performance, including a spirited defence of free enterprise rather than government as the generator of jobs and economic growth, has put him in a narrow lead in national polls and within clear striking distance of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win.
A Romney victory would refute the lesson taught by the New Deal historians. A narrow Obama victory – and no one expects him to run as well as he did in 2008 – would also undermine it, since he has based his campaign largely on his opponent’s deficiencies. The last time a Democratic president won another term as a proud exponent of bigger government was in 1964. Of the three Democratic presidents since, Jimmy Carter was defeated for re-election, and Bill Clinton won only by shifting towards the centre after Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994. Mr Obama chose not to do so. That may prove to be a losing bet, not just for Mr Obama, but for the narrative of the New Deal historians.
The writer is a US political commentator and co-author of ‘The Almanac of American Politics’
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