Barack Obama is hosting an inaugural eve dinner for John McCain. Try to imagine George W. Bush showing such grace to John Kerry or Al Gore. In ways large and small, Obama draws on the omissions, successes, and mistakes of his predecessors to inform his own conduct.
That was true in the campaign, where he followed Kerry’s successful strategy of betting everything on Iowa and avoided Kerry’s fatal mistake of accepting federal funding (and spending limits) in the general election. It’s true again as the president-elect shapes a consciously bipartisan recovery plan very different from the economic initiatives passed on party-line votes at the start of the Bush and Clinton administrations. Obama has not only included tax cuts to offer a measure of respect to the Republican minority; he’s apparently decided not to expend political capital repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which await expiration as scheduled in 2010. Obama discomforts purists in his own party, as JFK did when he preferred a stimulus of tax cuts to spending increases. Obama is making history by learning from it.
Republicans in Congress are now faced with a fundamental question: what does history teach them—and can they manage, if it’s smart politically and substantively, to put aside reflexive opposition? McCain publicly pledged to work with the new president: “There aren’t many times in history that a President has come to office with so many challenges,” he said. Shortly after those remarks, on the same show, barbed-wire ideologue Anne Coulter rushed to denounce McCain: it was time for “Republicans to be Republicans”—presumably in a no-holds-barred fight with Obama.
If Republicans turn to America’s chapter on the 1930s, they will discover how that approach turned out once before. As the 1934 midterm election approached, the recently defeated Herbert Hoover dominated the Republican message, attacking the New Deal as a threat to liberty fueled by reckless spending. In the public mind, Hoover’s attacks tainted even moderate Republicans as obstructionists. The result was a once-in-a-century landslide, with the Democrats widening their majority in both houses.
Instead of learning its lesson, however, a shrunken Republican minority instantly compounded its mistake by opposing Social Security. In the House of Representatives, 99 percent of GOP members voted to suffocate the bill in committee; nearly two-thirds of Senate Republicans followed suit.
After FDR signed Social Security into law, the Republicans redoubled their opposition in the 1936 presidential campaign. Republican nominee Alf Landon was initially reluctant to join in, but soon gave vent to a full-throated denunciation of Social Security as “unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted, and wastefully financed.” Republican ads charged that Americans would be forced to wear metal dog tags embossed with their Social Security numbers. And the era witnessed the debut of a wonderfully Republican cliché: Democrats were raising taxes to pay for wasteful federal spending. On Election Day, Roosevelt carried every state but Maine and Vermont and a once dominant Republican Party shrank yet again—to an historic low in Congress.
The Republicans who now advocate confrontation with Obama offer two answers to this history—one on policy, the other political.
On policy, they argue falsely that the deficit spending of the New Deal failed, making the Depression worse. In fact, from the onset of the New Deal to 1937, the country experienced the longest period of economic growth in history; the Dow Jones rose 400 percent. It was only after FDR listened to the deficit hawks and sharply reined in spending that recovery gave way to deep recession. The President quickly reversed course.
The political argument for Republican obstruction, largely unspoken, is that this strategy, deployed against the Clinton presidency in 1993 and 1994, led to midterm electoral success and the brief triumph of the Gingrich Revolution. The difference, however, is that 2009 is more like 1933: Americans are genuinely fearful on a scale not seen since Roosevelt, in their name, demanded, “action—and action now.” As Obama issues the same call, today’s born-again GOP fiscal hawks, who seldom said a discouraging word about the Bush deficits, may want to consult their New Deal history before leading their party down a politically treacherous path—especially one that has the additional disadvantage of being substantively wrong.
Frum argued in a debate with me just days before Obama’s victory that the GOP should position itself as an oppositionist party. But there are signs in Congress that the will to work with Obama extends beyond the renewed maverick John McCain to conventional Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was barely reelected in November. McConnell has ventured, grudgingly, that Obama’s recovery legislation will ultimately pass, and he seems to recognize that “ultimately” means sooner rather than later.
Maybe McConnell has read some history, too. We’ll soon discover whether Republicans have a sufficient acquaintance with it to do what’s right for the country—and for themselves.