Saturday, August 20, 2011

Obama In Nixonland

It was heartening to hear that President Obama was reading Rick Perlstein's invaluable book Nixonland:  The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.  As Rick describes, the book is about "the 'separate and irreconcilable fears' over the past 50 years that came to define the increasingly acrimonious cohabitation of Americans on the left and on the right."  But the book also provides key insights about "how the Democratic Party wins, why it loses and the good things that happen when the party gets the formula right."  Hopefully, Obama focused in on that part too.

Perlstein points out that when national elections are fought over "cultural and social anxieties ordinary Americans suffer" Republicans win, and when they are about "middle-class anxieties when the free market fails" Democrats win.
Consider 1960. Even with all that ­famous 1950s prosperity, 1959 saw a recession. Nixon blamed his defeat on Ike’s failure to use government to subdue it. Kennedy, meanwhile, enhanced New Deal programs like Social Security—and a promise to extend that legacy with ­Medicare-central to his appeal. People remember the U.S.’s first televised presidential debate for the contrast between JFK’s cool and a frantic and sweaty Nixon. What’s forgotten is what made Nixon so frantic: Kennedy’s unanswerable argument that Democrats created those programs and Republicans opposed them.
And why did the Democrats lose in 1968?  According to Perlstein, "Nixon effectively associated them with the protesters in the streets. But even then, Nixon almost lost, once his opponent Hubert Humphrey enlisted labor unions in a gargantuan last-minute push concerning which party created Social Security and Medicare and which seemed indifferent about preserving them."

In the 1970 mid-terms, Nixon "campaigned tirelessly for Republican candidates, then gave an ­election-eve TV speech blaming Democrats for the 'thugs and hoodlums' in the streets."  But he sounded "just as frantic and ugly as the forces he claimed the GOP would subdue," while the Democrats response came "from the calm, quiet Senator from Maine Edmund Muskie, who sat in an armchair and asked Americans to vote against a 'politics of fear' that insists 'you are encircled by monstrous dangers' and instead choose a 'politics of trust.'"

Perlstein is careful to note that Muskie's speech was not quite so Obama-like as it would appear, but was actually "overwhelmingly partisan," excoriating Republicans for cutting back on "health and education for the many … while expanding subsidies and special favors for the few.”  The GOP went "bust in the polls" that year.

And in 1972, George ­McGovern, "following a then fashionable theory that the middle class was prosperous enough to take care of itself and that unions were pretty much irrelevant, spoke to working-class concerns less than any Democrat had before. He lost 49 states."  McGovern failed to give LBJ-type speeches which talked about "which party gave the people Social Security, Medicare and the Tennessee Valley Authority and which one was willing to toss them over the side."
Here’s what LBJ knew that ­McGovern didn’t: There are few or no historical instances in which saying clearly what you are for and what you are against makes Americans less divided. But there is plenty of evidence that attacking the wealthy has not made them more divided. After all, the man who said of his own day’s plutocrats, “I welcome their hatred,” also assembled the most enduring political coalition in U.S. history.
Of course, "Republicans will call it “class warfare,” but as Perlstein says, "Let them."  As he concludes, "done right, economic populism cools the political climate. Just knowing that the people in power are willing to lie down on the tracks for them can make the middle much less frantic. Which makes America a better place. And incidentally makes Democrats win."


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