Saturday, September 13, 2008

Roosevelt, Hoover, Reagan & Carter

"Just keep running against Hoover. Whoever the Republicans put up, run against Hoover." -- FDR

FDR's advice lasted at least until 1968 or more accurately until 1980. Whoever the Republicans ran for president, link them back to Hoover. Not necessarily by name, but in rhetoric. Look at JFK's 1960 DNC acceptance speech. Hoover is only mentioned once in passing, but JFK does everything he can to link Nixon to the pre-Depression Republican presidents like McKinley, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover as a way of scaring voters. It was telling them, "Don't elect a guy just like the fatcats who let the Great Depression happen." Between 1932 and 1976 -- 12 elections -- the Republicans won four of them, two by running the greatest war hero since Grant (and maybe even since Washington himself) and one by running a man who talked like a Republican and governed like a Democrat. The Republicans couldn't overcome Hoover.

Reagan never put it as explicitly as FDR did, but he might as well have. No matter who the Democrats put up, run against Carter. Paint your opponent as a return to the oppressive welfare state, as a man who doesn't understand how ordinary Americans think and live. Use liberal as a epithet. Paint government as the problem and not the solution. And since 1980 -- 7 elections -- the Democrats have won only two. And they needed a man who governed like a moderate Republican to do it.* In essence, Bush I won by turning Dukakis into a Carter/Mondale liberal. And Bush II did the same to Gore and Kerry.

(I think Nixon and Clinton are very similar politicians. Most of the time when the comparison is made, it inevitably centers around their ethics. But they also had the same core set of political instincts. Both were governing in an era when their party and its ideology were unpopular. The idea of government involvement in our lives was as politically popular in Nixon's day as it was unpopular in Clinton's. In order to survive politically, Nixon's presidency was almost as liberal as LBJ's. The EPA and OSHA were created. Title IX was passed. He seriously considered a guaranteed income proposal. Clinton would survive by signing essentially conservative legislation like welfare reform, NAFTA and DOMA. Their instincts were all about doing whatever was necessary to maintain their popularity and political capital because neither possessed a core lodestar of governing. There is a 0% chance that Nixon or Clinton would have left Reyjavik empty-handed. The idea of selling out SDI in exchange for incredible concessions from the Russians, complete with the adoration it would have generated in the news media and international community would have been an easy deal for either of them to make. They always grasped for political capital, but didn't have an essential plan for how they wanted to use that capital. In that respect, both are the reverse George W. Bush, who governs much like his government spends. He spends political capital regardless of whether he actually possesses it.)

The FDR Doctrine of always running against Hoover ran its natural course for nearly 50 years. By the time Reagan was running against Carter, most of the electorate had never lived under Hoover. The recession was bad, but you couldn't scare voters by tapping into their Great Depression memories. Alan Greenspan, a man known for circumspection in his speech, declared that "capitalism is in crisis" in the 1970s and questioned whether America was going to remain a free-market economy. So the idea of cutting taxes, deregulating industries and encouraging entrepreneurship was welcome under an oppressive government bureaucracy.

But as the FDR Doctrine proves, you can't run against the same person forever. Eventually, demographics and the political climate catch up with you. There have been several books out recently by respected conservative thinkers about how the Republicans should pivot to account for this political reality. But faced with an opponent who is a singular political talent and who has the momentum on his side, McCain has doubled down on the Reagan Doctrine. He is trying as hard as he can to turn Obama into a conventional liberal -- to repeat what Bush/Atwater did to Dukakis 20 years ago. This ad, which is as clumsy as it is unfair, is exactly the type of ad designed to make Obama look like a conventional 1980s liberal.

If McCain wins, it proves that the Reagan Doctrine had one more win in it, even as George W. Bush had done everything he could to create a political environment to kill it, mutilate its body and have the corpse thrown into the river. But eventually, it will lose its effectiveness. If McCain loses, especially if he loses big, the Republicans will have at least four years to spend trying to regroup. I think David Brooks has the right idea that the conservative status quo (often a redundancy) is very much in decline, but for different reasons.