Time – and the economy — will tell if the Republicans can follow up Scott Brown’s surprise victory in Massachusetts with more big wins in November.
A lot of history is on the GOP’s side. A president’s party almost always loses House and Senate seats in mid-term elections.
A still-struggling economy helped Brown take the special election to succeed the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. But 76 years ago the economy was in its worst shape ever.
The Democrats bucked history in 1934. They gained House and Senate seats.
Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt captured the White House in a landslide two years before. His New Deal – far more sweeping than President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plans – had barely dented the Depression by 1934.
The Depression didn’t go away completely until we entered World War II in 1941. No matter, FDR was reelected handily in 1936 and 1940 (and 1944). All along, the Democrats maintained hefty majorities in both houses of Congress.
When Obama won, some pundits compared him to Roosevelt . After all, the country chose him, like FDR, to lead us in hard times.
But does the Brown victory mean voters are not as willing to cut slack for Obama as their forebears were for Roosevelt ? If so, why aren’t they?
Part of it is racism, says Dr. David Krueger, a retired community college history professor in Paducah, Kentucky. Obama won Massachusetts handily. He’s still popular in the Bay State . But some white folks – in Massachusetts and elsewhere — won’t give the president the benefit of the doubt because they can’t get past his skin color.
“It’s also this deeply-ingrained, corrosive anti-government attitude you didn’t see in the ‘30s,” Krueger added. “Today, people say, ‘All politicians are crooks’ and ‘The government is incompetent and can’t do anything.’ Then they elect people who won’t do anything. It goes round and round.”
Many people voted for Obama in 2008 because they were mad at President George W. Bush and the Republicans for screwing up the economy and for getting us mired in bloody and seemingly endless guerrilla warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan . They didn’t see Sen. John McCain, the GOP hopeful, as an improvement. His running mate scared the bejeebers out of most of the body politic.
In 1932, many people voted for Roosevelt because a decade of Republican “trickle down” economics had given the country the Depression and near 25 percent unemployment. But it looks like the good times will have to roll for the Democrats to do well this November.
Like FDR, Obama has been the object of much right-wing bile. Obama has Rush Limbaugh. But FDR had Limbaugh’s spiritual forbear, Father Charles Coughlin, a Hitler-admiring anti-Semite and the granddaddy of hate radio.
Nineteen-thirties vintage conservatives slammed FDR as a “socialist,” to boot.
The Boston Globe’s Joan Vennochi recently wrote that Obama told a New Hamphire crowd that he doesn’t like being slammed as “a socialist.” She warned, “…He will have to endure that and more if he is to fulfill his commitment to core supporters.”
But Roosevelt – “that man” to rightists who refused even to speak his name — deftly turned the tables on his detractors. When they tagged him a “socialist,” he dubbed them “economic royalists.” He said he welcomed their venom. That fired up the faithful, including Susie and Diehl Vest, my union-card carrying grandparents.
Maybe Obama figures it’s self-evident to working stiffs that the GOP is still the union-busting party of privilege. But an AFL-CIO commissioned poll revealed that union households voted for Brown over union-endorsed Democrat Martha Coakley by a 49-46 margin.
Obama’s presidential style probably isn‘t helping him with regular folks. I’ve seen it described as “lawyerly” and “professorial.” (He graduated from Harvard law school and taught law part-time at the University of Chicago .)
Obama aims for the head, not the gut. That’s not bad. But neither is getting passionate about what you believe in.
Observing the Granite State crowd, Vennocchi suggested some of the faithful “embrace Obama’s agenda with more passion than he does.” But a multitude of Obama partisans — rightly or wrongly – perceive a lack of presidential ardor even on the big issues he cares about.
FDR was a Harvard-educated lawyer, too. But he knew the White House wasn’t a classroom or a court room. His cousin Teddy called the presidency a “bully pulpit.” FDR got it.
It was obvious to Susie and Diehl Vest which party was putting the screws to them. But FDR never missed a chance to remind working class voters like them which party wasn’t on their side. “Most Republican leaders have bitterly fought and blocked the forward surge of average men and women in their pursuit of happiness,” he said. “Let us not be deluded that overnight those leaders have suddenly become the friends of average men and women.”
“Bobo” and “Granddadden” Vest voted for FDR all four times he ran. Their union-card carrying grandson voted for Obama. He’ll do the same in 2012.
But dobbers are down among much of the faithful. They’re waiting for Obama to fire them up.
“You don’t sell hope and change to a country and then back away from it just because Brown is going to Washington ,” Vennochi wrote. “You fight for what you promised.”
I’m glad to see Obama starting to show some spunk. His recent performance at the televised Q&A with the House GOP brass was a great start. It got rave reviews at our central labor council. “He looked those Republicans right in the eye and kicked their butts,” said one delegate, a retired Machinist. “But he needs to do more than that.”
Sly humor kicks butts, too. In 1940, FDR used it on his triple crosses to bear: Republican Reps. Joseph Martin, Bruce Barton, and Hamilton Fish, the latter accused of Nazi sympathies.
It didn’t matter what the issue was. If FDR was for it, Martin, Barton, and Fish were against it, and vice versa. In a famous speech, FDR socked it to the obstructionist trio.
He blamed the Republicans for “timidity…weakness [and]…short-sightedness” on issues foreign and domestic. He singled out Martin, Barton and Fish in a special way.
“Martin, Barton and Fish!” FDR intoned to the rhythm of “Wynken, Blinken and Nod,” the familiar nursery rhyme. The audience joined in on the second go-round. Roosevelt loved it.
FDR kept it up on the campaign trail. Democratic throngs ate it up. They’d chorus “Martin, Barton and Fish!” with the president who’d grin approvingly.
Obama’s nemeses are GOP Reps. Eric Cantor and John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell (I’ve still got my “Ditch Mitch” button.).
Can’t you hear it? — “Cantor, Boehner and Mitch!”
The president could also mine some good material from FDR’s immortal “Rendezvous with Destiny” speech, which he gave at the 1936 Democratic national convention. He scorched the “economic royalists,” faulting them and the Republicans for the Depression:
“….The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business. They granted that the government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live….
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.
“The brave and clear platform adopted by this convention, to which I heartily subscribe, sets forth that government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.
“But the resolute enemy within our gates is ever ready to beat down our words unless in greater courage we will fight for them….
“We seek not merely to make government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.
“We are poor indeed if this nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude….
“Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales.
“Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny….”
Mr. President, we the faithful want you to lead the country to a new rendezvous with destiny.
And it’s way past time for you to start giving the Republicans more than “heck.”