Will 2012 be 1936 Redux?

In 1936, the country was still in the stranglehold of the Great Depression, and despite billions of dollars of government largesse, (largely to swing states and politically important groups) unemployment was still hovering near 20% and more Americans were "on relief" (make work jobs and welfare) than was the case 3 years prior. This last despite FDR's solemn promise to reduce the number of people on relief.

The Supreme Court started to declare some New Deal programs unconstitutional and the Republicans were winning back some key congressional seats, as the country seemingly began to wake up to how destructive the New Deal really was. FDR's poll numbers were diving and Republicans salivated at the chance to kick FDR out of office in November.

On election day, FDR crushed the Republican candidate, winning 523 electoral votes to the challenger's 8, which is the largest margin in American history.

What happened?

Two things happened. First, FDR used his printing presses and his political machine to flood swing states with cash and jobs. From Burton Folsom's New Deal or Raw Deal?:
In 1935, Congress had allocated $4.8 billion for the newly created WPA to use for relief work, and much of that cash the president had personal discretion in distributing. What that meant was that state governors had to come hat in hand to Washington hoping to persuade the president to build roads, dams, bridges, and model cities in their states.

...In the four months before the 1936 election, 300,000 men were added to the WPA. In the month after the election, 300,000 were promptly removed from WPA work. As Thomas Dewey observed, "Three-hundred thousand men and their families moved on and off relief as pawns of New Deal politics."

...When, for example, Roosevelt heard that thousands of WPA workers were to be laid off October 1—the month before the election—he told Morgenthau, "I don't give a god-damn where he gets the money from but not one person is to be laid off on the first of October."
Clearly, this was an assault the Republicans could not fight. "As the campaign wore on, and with the New Deal money spigots turned on high, Landon [the challenger] fell behind more and more. Landon won a majority of donations from businessmen, but that cash was dwarfed by Roosevelt's federal money machine. Roosevelt's patronage trumped Landon's protests of high prices, high taxes, failed programs, and executive usurpation of power."

It seems like a clear cut answer, and that alone likely sunk the Republicans despite the clear evidence in their favor. However, something else made it impossible for them, no matter whether they had a stellar candidate (they did not) or more money than FDR.

The second thing that led to FDR's landslide victory is that the Republicans were entirely lacking in principles. Folsom indicts them, then and now:
Landon had a dilemma, and it has been a Republican dilemma ever since 1936. So many Americans were now working in federal programs that he risked offending about ten million voters if he argued for cutting programs to balance the budget. But if he agreed to continue the programs, then the balanced budget crowd would be unhappy and the people on the programs, although no longer angry, would still have no real incentive to ditch the man who created so many of their federal jobs. As one reporter quipped: "Don't switch Santa Clauses in mid-stream." Roosevelt accurately attacked Landon in Syracuse as follows: "You cannot promise to repeal taxes before one audience and promise to spend more of the taxpayers' money before another audience.... You simply cannot make good on both promises at the same time."
Sound familiar? On the one hand, in the midst of widespread unhappiness we have federal largesse working in the favor of the statist incumbent. On the other hand, we have wishy-washy, unprincipled statists making laughable and half-hearted arguments, all the while supporting the same basic goals as those they are fighting against.

Will the 2012 election end up with the same result as the 1936 election? Time will tell, but if history is any guide, it's doubtful the country will see any relief from this disastrous presidency any time soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing out the 1936 election. The closest one I had been considering was the 1996 Clinton/Dole contest. I think that the disarray in the Republican field today reflects that election and the 'principled' statist vs the unprincipled statists looks more like the FDR/Landon election.

c. andrew