Wednesday, October 22, 2008

ELECTION '08: A New Deal?

This week, I have been struck by the following excerpts from Jean Edward Smith's biography FDR (Random House, 2007) - specifically, from the chapter on the 1932 presidential election between Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover and Democratic challenger Franklin Delano Roosevelt...

"Hoover's voice found little resonance. He was so unpopular that it was unsafe for him to appear in public without heavy police escort. Isolated and out of touch, he came across as a master of malapropism... The message of fear was all that remained. As Hoover would have it, Roosevelt was the precursor of revolution. Speaking in Saint Paul three days before the election, an exhausted Hoover equated the Democratic party with 'the same philosophy of government which has poisoned all of Europe... the fumes of the witch's cauldron which boiled in Russia.' He accused the Democrats of being 'the party of the mob'...

Roosevelt was elected on November 8. Inauguration was not until March 4. That four-month hiatus, coinciding with the fourth winter of the Depression, proved the most harrowing in American memory. Three years of hard times had cut national income in half. Five thousand bank failures had wiped out 9 million savings accounts. By the end of 1932, 15 million workers, one out of every three, had lost their jobs... Homeowners were being foreclosed at a rate of well over one thousand a day. Farmers lost their land because they could not pay taxes or meet mortgage payments... Violence simmered beneath the surface... Hoover's doctrinaire attachment to the free market precluded government intervention."

There are some striking similarities to our current political situation, but quite a few differences from our upcoming presidential election. We may be facing the nation's greatest economic upheaval since the Great Depression, but thankfully we will not be relying on an ineffective president for three more years before the next election. McCain and Obama are both spreading a message of hope about America's future. Both are presenting themselves as the champion of the common man. Both seem to have faith in the federal government's ability to regulate the economy. The difference is in their economic plans.

This past week, McCain compared Obama's tax plans to Hoover's, saying, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that Senator Obama wants to restrict trade and he wants to raise taxes. And the last president of the United States that tried that was Herbert Hoover, and we went from a deep recession into a depression." Obama is at odds with FDR on the subject of free trade... but maybe that's because it's not 1932 and the global economy has changed. Free trade, Obama says, is no longer good enough. We need "fair trade." In July, Obama spoke in Germany about this "revolutionary" concept: "Trade has been a cornerstone of our growth and global development. But we will not be able to sustain this growth if it favors the few, and not the many. Together, we must forge trade that truly rewards the work that creates wealth, with meaningful protections for our people and our planet."

More recently, McCain and Palin have been labeling Obama a socialist - just as Hoover labeled FDR a socialist - because of his attempts to "spread the wealth" through tax cuts. Obama's response: "John McCain thinks that giving these Americans a break is socialism. Well, I call it opportunity, and there is nothing more American than that."

What's interesting is that BOTH candidates supported the government's recent 700 billion dollar bailout. For all their arguments, both have shown the same faith in big government to stabilize the economy and protect the people. The difference is in their definition of "the people." From what I can tell, this election is largely about what portion of the U.S. population will actually benefit from the new deal that each candidate proposes.

It's gut check time: Are we united or not?

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