Posted by Thomas Nephew on August 27th, 2012
It’s easy to dismiss the froth of election-related ads, articles and Internet campaign memes that’s accumulating as the November election approaches, but if nothing else, it can show how candidates and their supporters would like to appear. For Democrats — and unfortunately, even for ones in the White House — the answer often seems to be: I’d like to be an old school Republican — I like Ike.
This is a really stupid message
Popular and well-spoken pundit Rachel Maddow, for instance, once famously defined “liberal” as being “in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican party platform” ; the quote is making the rounds again in 2012. Chalk that up as one last victory for 1956 Republicans; Ike was probably a better Republican than most of the current crop, but that’s no reason to hold him up as an icon to the left.
Sure, I get it: the intent is to say “Republicans used to agree with us on things they don’t now.” On the other hand, of course, those Republicans are all dead. And even with the “almost” Maddow wisely includes, the main thing this approach accomplishes is to shrink away from what Democrats do or might stand for, adopt past Republican views as a “good enough” standard, and give a pass to Republican disasters like the Taft-Hartley Act or interventions in Guatemala and Iran.*
And it’s not just Maddow. After the debt ceiling debacle of 2011, the Obama White House itself invoked the good old days of Eisenhower to defend that disastrous deal. Touting the outcome as a “bipartisan compromise,” the White House fact sheet “Bipartisan Debt Deal: A Win for the Economy and Budget Discipline” trumpeted the bullet point “Domestic Discretionary Spending to the Lowest Level Since Eisenhower.” Like Maddow, the Obama White House effectively abandoned the goals of Eisenhower-era and post-Eisenhower *Democrats*; using Eisenhower-era spending as a benchmark all but conceded that worthy, signature Democratic efforts like Medicare or the Great Society were wastes of time.
Nevertheless, “Eisenhower Democrats” have taken up points like this one as some kind of triumphant vindication of the Obama team’s economic policies. This May, Forbes columnist Rick Ungar relayed a Marketwatch finding pointing out that Obama’s own year-over-year budget increases were the lowest of any post-World War II president – – as if that were a good thing during a crippling recession with hundreds of thousands mired in debilitating, long term unemployment.
So is this
The graphic to the left may mark some kind of low point in the trend of Democrats trying to out-Republican the Republicans. Think about its message for a second:
“The next time someone tells you that Obama is destroying the economy, remind them that the stock market and corporate profits are at all-time highs. When they tell you that this hasn’t helped them any, remind them they’ve just admitted Trickle-Down Economics doesn’t work.”
With friends like these, Democrats don’t need any enemies. Corporate profits and the stock market index aren’t the measures of the economy’s health that Democrats should be watching — employment, inequality, and access to baseline public goods should be. To me, the statement just proves (1) Obama executes Republican goals well, (2) it doesn’t do regular folks (like Obama’s *opponents*!) any good, and (3) Obama’s *supporters* don’t seem to get that. It’s a really, really strange argument to showcase. “Boom.” Actually, if someone’s telling you these days that the economy is being destroyed, chances are they’re not “admitting” trickle down economics doesn’t work — that’s their whole point. It just doesn’t seem to be Obama’s. Or, it would seem, many Democrats’ points either.
Defense spending, 1970-2011 in 2011 dollars.
Note the final three years, 2009-2011.
(Source: Defense Department via CATO Inst.)
While more and more of them are apparently adopting the Eisenhower-era slogans “I like Ike” or “what’s good for corporate America is good for the country,” one thing Democrats ought to remember the Eisenhower era for generally goes unheeded — his warning about the military-industrial complex and the vast amounts of money the nation squanders on defense spending. Instead, the typical Democratic talking point these days boils down to “we are *so* spending too much on the military!” The syndrome is perfectly illustrated by a February, 2012 Center for American Progress headline “Wall Street Journal Graph Falsely Suggests Military Spending Is On The Decline.”
Indeed it isn’t. But that’s not something for progressives to adopt a tone of injured pride about.
* The 1956 GOP platform included paeans to brutal and/or anti-democratic US interventions in Guatemala and Iran. Also, as the 1956 Democratic Party platform notes, the Republicans were taking credit for a minimum wage hike they wanted to be lower than the Democrats who passed it did. Similarly, Democrats wanted to repeal the disaster for labor that was the Taft-Hartley Act, while Republicans wanted to improve it to better protect the rights of management. Democrats were no cup of tea in the 1950s either, but there was still a reason they were FDR’s and Adlai Stevenson’s party, not Ike’s: they were more consistently on the side of the average American, not the one percent.
UPDATE, 8/31: more and better on the Democratic Party’s adoption of deficit-reduction ueber alles by Corey Robin (“We’re Going To Tax Their Ass Off!”) and Alex Gourevitch (“Pastiche without Purpose: Democrats and the Politics of Debt”).