Barone To the World: I’m Right No Matter What!

Watching the slow but steady decline of Michael Barone into partisan hackdom has been one of the sadder phenomena of my career in politics (certainly since 1976, when I bought and devoured my first Almanac of American Politics). Barone actually complained to my boss when I wrote an review of the 2006 Almanac noting that his hackish tendencies were beginning to infect that totemic publication, which he co-founded. But Barone can still occasionally muster the energy to do some research, and his punditry, while predictable, usually features at least an aroma of empirical evidence.

I don’t know what to make of his big pre-election column for the Financial Times. It grinds a big ax against the standard historians of the New Deal about popular support for FDR’s agenda, by way of predicting happily that the New Deal Era has finally ended once and for all no matter what happens on November 6:

A Romney victory would refute the lesson taught by the New Deal historians. A narrow Obama victory – and no one expects him to run as well as he did in 2008 – would also undermine it, since he has based his campaign largely on his opponent’s deficiencies. The

[L]ast time a Democratic president won another term as a proud exponent of bigger government was in 1964. Of the three Democratic presidents since, Jimmy Carter was defeated for re-election, and Bill Clinton won only by shifting towards the centre after Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994. Mr Obama chose not to do so. That may prove to be a losing bet, not just for Mr Obama, but for the narrative of the New Deal historians.

This manages to get Carter, Clinton and Obama wrong, in one paragraph, which is what it takes to make the claim that the Great Conservative Reaction to the New Deal has actually been the people’s choice since 1936 (or maybe 1934, based on how you interpret Barone’s murky writing on the subject). This maneuver requires that Barone accuse Obama of taking office as a crazy lefty, getting even crazier after 2010, before suddenly repudiating his entire legacy in a frantic effort to survive. That way, the column can arrive at its intended destination of showing that no small variable like the outcome of the actual election can disturb Barone’s sweeping interpretation of American politics over the last three-quarters-of-a-century or so.

You’d almost think Barone is just talking to himself. That’s probably an occupational hazard when the smartest guy in the room takes the easy way out and signs up for the team where interest in honest analysis is limited.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.