This year’s Super Tuesday primaries will give both parties a chance to decide which of their candidates offers the best policy prescriptions to address the nation’s challenges. Surprisingly for a campaign that is supposedly focused on America’s future, many of the ideas being proposed echo proposals from America’s past. It’s almost as if the ghosts of not just Ronald Reagan, but Huey Long, William Jennings Bryan, and Norman Thomas have come back to haunt us, making this one of the scariest presidential campaign seasons in recent memory.
For GOP, it’s Reincarnation of Long vs. Descendant of Bryan vs. Children of Reagan.
Donald Trump is basking in the popularity of his ideas on how to improve the economic and social standing of America’s beleaguered middle and working classes. He hasn’t offered many specific proposals on how to do that but, unlike his Republican opponents, he doesn’t reject big government solutions, such as preserving Medicare and exercising the right of eminent domain, out of hand. In the 1930s, Huey Long’s populist “Share our Wealth” campaign promised to give away government money to poor people. Overseas, European dictators of that era proposed what they called “National Socialism” or “Fascism,” which made scapegoats of certain portions of their country’s population while promising economic benefits to the rest of the population. Underlying all of these movements was a promise to make their particular country—Germany, Italy, Spain, even Argentina, as captured in the musical Evita—in Donald Trump’s words, “great again.”
Huey Long was assassinated in 1935 before he could launch his national campaign against FDR’s New Deal, but no one at the time doubted the power of his ideas to generate support from an economically struggling and culturally-alienated demographic. By pitting the interests of working class, less educated voters against those in the establishment, while calling for the expulsion of those who he and many others blame or the country’s economic ills, Trump has managed to gain the enthusiastic and boisterous support of a slice of the electorate--white voters with less than a college education---that is in the final stages of its long slow journey from being the backbone of FDR’s coalition to becoming a critical part of the Republican party’s base.
Ted Cruz on the other hand is offering a “true conservative” civic ethos that harkens back to previous Republican party platforms--starting in the 1890s with William McKinley and continuing all the way through Herbert Hoover’s disastrous 1932 campaign. What Senator Cruz has added to this position of minimal federal economic involvement is a religiously-driven, doctrinaire approach to social issues. Cruz’s unrelenting hostility to non-believers of various types is reminiscent of the attitudes that Williams Jennings Bryan brought to his three political defeats as the Democratic candidate in 1896, 1900 and 1908 and to his Bible-based defense in the 1920s of a law forbidding the teaching of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in Tennessee public schools.
The establishment wing’s candidates—Marco Rubio and John Kasich—are proposing the country go back only as far as the Reagan-era formula of reducing the economic role of government, while give lip service to the concerns of the aggrieved, but fading, religious right. Rubio calling his followers “children of the Reagan revolution” at least reflects nostalgia for the late 20th Century rather than Trump’s stumping for the neo30s or Cruz’s bridge to the religious passions of the 17th Century. Both of them, to their credit, have also tried to adopt the sunnier tone of the former President in their rhetoric in a year when fear, uncertainty and doubt permeate the media. Governor Kasich has gone so far as to follow Reagan’s 11th commandment that thou shall not speak ill of other Republicans in a year when personal insults seem to be the ticket to stardom.
We will have a good idea after Super Tuesday which of these candidates are likely to be the party’s nominee and whose approach to the role of the federal government in today’s society will become the centerpiece of the Republican Party’s platform this year. Whether any of these somewhat old ideas will resonate with a 21st Century electorate, however, remains to be determined in November.
In the Democrat’s Debate, it’s the Ghost of Norman Thomas vs. a Replica of President Obama
Bernie Sanders has suggested on more than one occasion that his campaign’s economic and political message is a throwback to FDR’s New Deal. What he fails to mention is that his democratic socialist ideas were explicitly rejected by the American public in both 1932 and 1936, even in the midst of a Great Depression, when the GI Generation overwhelmingly supported FDR and not Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party’s nominee. Still, after the Great Recession and the illegal behavior of Wall Street firms and their leaders, it is not hard to understand why Sanders’ call for a “political revolution” to put the government in charge of ensuring economic equality finds such enthusiastic support from Millennials, a generation that is coming into its own political power eighty years after the last previous civic-oriented generation, the GI Generation, which restrained the economic oligarchs of its day.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton is explicitly campaigning on the need to “build upon,” and thereby ratify, the new civic ethos that President Obama has introduced into the country’s political debate. Rejecting Sanders’ premise that all of America’s problems are rooted in economics, she has taken a less sexy, but thoroughly modern pragmatic approach, reminiscent of her husband and President Obama -- but without the soaring rhetoric and charisma.
For example, by attacking Sanders’ proposal for “Medicare for all” in favor of continuing to make progress on universal health care through the framework of the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare), she also directly addresses Obama’s vision of a new role for the federal government. In this 21st Century approach to the relationship between the government and its citizens, the federal government uses the power of taxation granted to it in the original Constitution to compel individual behavior, e.g. buying health insurance, but individuals have the responsibility to undertake such activities, preferably with the aid of their state government.
In our country’s past, each time the debate over the relationship between citizens and their government has reached fever pitch, visionary leaders have come forward to persuade the populace that revolution was not the answer. The Founding Fathers convinced the rest of the country in the wisdom of their Constitutional formulation after about a decade of debate. Lincoln could not convince the entire country of his vision of equal rights without a war, but his ideas ultimately prevailed. FDR’s political skills enabled him to lead the country away from its economic fears to a new conception of how government could provide for “the common man.” Each in his own way, and in the context of their times, found a way to preserve the unique nature of our American democracy.
Washington, Lincoln and FDR articulated a new conception of America’s exceptional ability to reconcile its eternally conflicting desires for both individual liberty and collective action in ways that won them the enduring appreciation of a nation and the praise of presidential historians. This year’s crop of candidates ---including the likely winner Secretary Clinton --- has yet to offer such a grand vision or earn such affection. Instead, the campaign has seemed to be more like a series of clowns jumping out of a jack-in-the-box, shouting slogans from America’s past, just to frighten us. But, in a year filled with political unpredictability, perhaps one of the candidates will surprise us one more time and demonstrate the ability to persuade the country to endorse his or her vision of how to organize ourselves in the 21st century in ways that preserve our American democracy for decades to come.