In 1932, Herbert Hoover suffered a humiliating defeat in his race for reelection. Winning 59 electoral votes and carrying six states, his loss was one of the worst for a sitting president – and a harbinger of things to come.
In the next decades, most presidential candidates from Hoover’s party shared his fate. For 36 years, the GOP lost every presidential election but two. How it won the two was by essentially running a Democrat for president. Dwight Eisenhower drew support from across the political spectrum and won twice when his party needed wins.
The last quarter-century a similar trend has emerged. Again the GOP has struggled in presidential elections, winning the popular vote once since 1988. And its response has been the same as when it lost support in Eisenhower’s day. The GOP again has chosen moderates as its nominees. John McCain was essentially a Democrat. So is Mitt Romney, probably.
Like McCain and Romney, Eisenhower said he was a Republican; but he governed like a Democrat. He expanded all major New Deal programs still in operation and rolled them into a new cabinet-level agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Before he left office, Eisenhower extended HEW benefits to an additional ten million workers. Further proving his liberal bona fides, he appointed Earl Warren to the US Supreme Court, helped integrate public schools, proposed the largest public works project in history (the interstate highway system) supported welfare and unions, and opposed the increasing power of the defense industry.
In fact, Eisenhower was not a real Republican or anything like one. So why’d he represent the GOP in 1952?
Draft Eisenhower movements first emerged in 1948, mostly in the Democratic Party. When it asked Eisenhower if he’d run as a Democrat in 1952, he balked at the suggestion, citing his wariness of what he saw as the party’s affinity for centralized power.
As for why the GOP wanted Eisenhower as its nominee, first there was his celebrity after the war. His stature as a war hero jibed well with the party’s emphasis on national security and foreign policy. But even if he hadn’t been a hero, the GOP would have collared him; it was either him or a real Republican, say, Robert Taft, at the head of the ticket. Someone like Taft would hand Adlai Stevenson the election. Having watched conservatives struggle post-depression, the GOP knew a moderate like Eisenhower could help it win in 1952; and it badly needed a win, for it hadn’t had one since 1928.
Like in the post-depression years, the stock of Democrats is on the rise. Bill Clinton retired as one of our most popular presidents after presiding over the biggest economic boom since the New Deal. And in 2008, Barack Obama had some 70 million votes, more than any candidate in history. His electoral count of 365, moreover, was one of the highest for a non-incumbent. Three years later, his approval rating is climbing as the economy improves and job growth surges.
Like in Eisenhower’s day, moderates again are objects of widespread adulation. Knowing leaders like Clinton and Obama are wooing the masses, the Republican Party has again chosen Democrats as its nominees, men like John McCain, a centrist on most issues (or at least he was before he ran for president in 2008). McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts, is a foe of corporate welfare, Big Tobacco, and the Republican right, and is a champion of campaign finance reform.
Much the same could be said about Mitt Romney. Romney, a current frontrunner for the GOP nomination, is like McCain a moderate. As governor of Massachusetts, he signed into law health care reform legislation, which provided near-universal health insurance access via subsidies and state-level mandates. The program was the first of its kind in the nation. He believes in man-made climate change, and in the GOP debates he called for a middle-class tax cut. Clinton did the same, as has Obama. But Romney is the first “Republican” who’s done so. He vows he’ll protect social security for the future if elected. He says he’d repair the social safety net for “low income families,” supports campaign finance reform and tough gun laws (he backed the Brady Bill), wants DNA-backed proof of guilt as the standard in death penalty cases, supports the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, and wants the minimum wage closely linked to growth in the economy.
Why have Romney represent the GOP now? Like in Eisenhower’s day, it must choose a centrist as its nominee, for since the 80s, millions of moderates have abandoned the party.
Reagan Democrats who helped it win big in 80 and 84 have long since jumped ship. Reagan captured 59 percent of the popular vote in 1984, George H.W. Bush garnered 53 percent in 1988. Since then the GOP has won the popular vote once, and the one win was nothing to brag about. George W. Bush’s two percent win in 2004 – the narrowest ever for an incumbent, with interest rates at a 50-year low – says it all. Even with incumbency and the Feds on his side, Bush barely won majority support. Then, when the economy slowed, scores more ditched the GOP. In 2006, Republicans lost both Houses in a one election, something that did not even occur after the 29 crash. And in January, 2009, Bush retired with a 22 percent approval rating, the lowest on record. Worse yet for the GOP, by January 2012 just 28 percent of registered voters called themselves Republicans, a decline of five points since 2004 and only a point above a record low level of Republican self-identification. Finally, turnout for the Republican primaries has been noticeably light.
As Republicans’ appeal has declined, Democrats’ has broadened. In 2008, Obama captured 53 percent of the popular vote, the highest percentage for a presidential candidate in two decades. In the election, he stomped his rival, beating McCain by some 10 million votes after vowing he’d govern like JFK if elected.
The Democratic Party is now a winner; conservatism is a loser and has been for a quarter-century. Knowing this, the GOP will shun right-wingers when it picks its nominee and choose Romney, who is well to the left of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
Here’s the problem though. While he differs from Santorum and Gingrich politically, Romney differs from Eisenhower in other ways, and this will be his undoing.
Eisenhower had everything going for him. By the time he ran for president, he was a triumphant solider revered by the masses for his role in World War II. He was personable, and he ran against a non-incumbent with little name recognition, who he easily defeated twice. Romney is not nearly as self-endowed, as heroic, or as fortunate. He’s uninspiring and appears stilted stating his positions. And there’s the problem of incumbency. If Romney is the nominee he’ll run against a sitting president who’s cleaning up the mess he inherited. Obama has all but ended our occupation of Iraq and has drawn down troops in Afghanistan. Not coincidentally, he’s also cut defense spending significantly from the obscene level reached in the Bush years.
The election outcome, then, is not at all in doubt. Which candidate will woo the electorate – and why he’ll do so – should be clear. In the months ahead, Romney will coddle the militant right, slam the Iraqi troop withdrawal, shake his fist at Iran and alienate voters. Obama will diffuse tensions abroad through diplomacy, ply the economy with dollars cut from defense, improve living conditions and win broad support.
The scheming, then, will be all in vain. Though the GOP will run a Democrat in the election, the move won’t yield the desired result. Unlike Eisenhower’s campaigns, Romney’s will fail. Obama will likely defeat him easily as job growth surges and the Dow soars this year.