Parallels from the past
Previous posts have focused on the parallels early in the civil war crisis, asking whether this election will be remembered as our 1856 (in which Compromiser/Artist James Buchanan defeated Transcendental/Gilded cusper John C. Fremont, largely because of fears that the election of the Republican Fremont would break up the Union) or that of 1860, which really kicked off the crisis. But 1932 offers some interesting parallels as well, both politically and with respect to the state of the country, and thus a brief review of that year is also in order.
The Democrats in 1932 faced a one-term incumbent whose popularity (then unmeasured by polls) must have sunk to about where George W. Bush's is today, and who insisted, like Bush, that his policies were sound and that history would vindicate them. They were fortunate, as it turned out, to have three, not two, major candidates--and the rivalry between the top two, Alfred E. Smith, the former Governor of New York and 1928 standard bearer, and his successor Franklin Roosevelt, had something of the same emotional tenor as that between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Ten years older than FDR, Smith had been four times elected Governor of New York, and had gone down to a crushing defeat against Hoover, largely because of his Catholic religion, in 1928. In that same year he had hand-picked Roosevelt, whom many in New York politics had always seen as a dilettante and a lightweight, to run for Governor, only to see Roosevelt very narrowly elected while Smith, who never struck most Americans as Presidential timber, lost his own state. During the next four years Roosevelt made a good impression as governor and carefully cultivated Democratic leaders all over the country, all the while declining even to ask Smith's advice on questions of policy or patronage. Smith however remained as determined to be the first Catholic President as Clinton is to be the first woman, and he felt just as entitled to the nod, feeling vindicated by the events of the last four years. The third candidate, Speaker of the House John Nance Garner from Texas, competed with Roosevelt for support in the South and West, while the two New Yorkers battled it out in the Northeast.
Had three candidates remained strong in this year's race, the third one would now be able to decide the outcome. That is what happened at Chicago in 1932, when Garner, backed by William Randolph Hearst, switched to Roosevelt Democrats still needed a 2/3 majority for the nomination in 1932 (FDR had the rule changed, fortunately, four years later), and Roosevelt began on the first ballot with 666 votes, just 104 shy of the nomination, as Smith polled 202 and Garner 90. Garner switched on the fourth ballot in exchange for the Vice Presidency--a decision he bitterly regretted for the rest of his life and in 1960 urged Lyndon Johnson not to repeat. Smith was never reconciled to the party's choice (and actually opposed Roosevelt in 1936), but that had little effect on the outcome.
Essentially the Democratic Party in 1932 had everything going for it. The depression had brought terrible hardship to millions of workers and farmers and Hoover was in effect promising more of the same. The country was isolationist, and FDR at that moment was if anything more isolationist than Hoover. In addition, the most important social issue that year--Prohibition--was undoubtedly working in the Democrats' favor. (Recently my wife and I watched a fascinating movie, The Wet Parade, on Turner Classic Movies. Illustrating the evils of drink against the background of American history from 1916 to 1932, it nonetheless sent a clear message that Prohibition was doing more harm than good.) Hoover lost a full 18% of the nation's vote compared to 1928, falling from 58% to 40%--and the Republican Party took twenty years to recover. (That swing is very comparable to what happened to the Democrats between 1964 and 1968, and at the Presidential level the effect of those four years has been equally profound.)
Comparing the two elections, one sad fact stands out: the Democrats had the good sense to hold their convention in late June, giving their candidate two months to rest before the Labor Day kick-off. In recent decades conventions have been moving closer and closer to the beginning of the campaign itself, and those chickens, to coin a phrase, are now coming home to roost for my dear old party. If the contest really lasts through August and features a floor fight over seating the Florida and Michigan delegations, the winner will get off to a terrible start.
Regarding social and identity issues, the picture looks less favorable. Smith's failure in 1932 removed the Catholicism issue from the table, but this year's candidate will have to contend with either racial or gender prejudice, both of them still formidable factors. John McCain seems unlikely to try to exploit anti-gay prejudice than George W. Bush, but one cannot know to what he will be driven by electoral need. Certainly there is nothing this year like Prohibition around which Democrats and independents might rally.
Economically the picture looks a lot more like 1929 than 1932; our great crisis is only beginning and no one knows how far it might go. Personally I am very concerned that our whole new service- and retail-based economy may not survive a deep, prolonged slump. With food and oil prices soaring Americans may no longer be able to afford so much shopping, and they may do more of what they do online, gradually forcing sales personnel even in box stores to follow the way of elevator operators, bank tellers, and gas station attendants. Undoubtedly the economy will benefit the Democrats, but a Democratic President looking for remedies to a whole new set of economic ills will be at least at sea as the New Deal was in 1933. And in one key respect--the financial health of the federal government--eight years of Bush have done much more to make things worse than four years of Hoover ever did.
But the biggest difference is in foreign policy, of course, where war has replaced peace as the American norm during the last seventy years. With the sole (and significant) exception of 1992-2000, when the Democrats won three elections [sic], war or the threat of war has been a critical issue in every Presidential campaign since 1940. War has not always benefited the Party that fights it--see 1952 and 1968--but in all that time George McGovern was the only Presidential candidate who directly challenged the thrust of current American foreign policy. Hillary Clinton obviously had no plans to propose a truly alternative foreign policy this year either, and although Obama has forced her to the left on Iraq, I feel quite sure that she will rejoin the mainstream in the unlikely event that she is elected. (Last week she threatened to "obliterate" Iran if Iran attacked Israel, out-Bushing Bush.) But Obama is another matter, and John McCain is bound to run on his supposedly superior toughness on foreign policy. There is at least a 50-50 chance, in my opinion, that we will have bombed Iran before November, making these issues more emotional and more acute.
This is both the critical problem and the great opportunity of this election--actually to break the conservative grip on American foreign policy. In an interesting review of a biography of Ahmad Chalabi in today's New York Times, Leslie Gelb cites Chalabi's shrewd understanding of American (as opposed to Iraqi) politics as the key to his success. "Chalabi," Gelb writes, "saw beyond the research institutes and policy makers i Washington's national security power structure. He spent little time on liberals, whose influence on foreign affairs is by and large limited to Democratic Party presidential primaries. [!!!!!] If he needed a Democratic senator, and he always did, he went to hard heads like Bob Kerrey of Nebraska or Joe Lieberman of Connecticut." During the last forty years "McGovernite" liberals have been whipping boys and girls for the Republican party and the national security establishment even when imperial adventures like Vietnam and Iraq have gone horribly wrong. It is time for a change, not least because we no longer have the economic, military or political resources to make them go right.