a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Eisenhower Democrats

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”).

9 Responses to “Eisenhower Democrats”

  1. Nell Says:

    R: “Corporations are people, my friend.”

    O: “Corporations are my friend, people!”

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:


    (see also “First of all, I know both these guys“)

  3. We’re Going To Tax Their Ass Off! « Corey Robin Says:

    […] Thomas Nephew alerts me to the fact that today’s Democrat and liberal actually embraces the identity of being an Eisenhower Republican. I did not know that. Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrint […]

  4. Avedon Says:

    Funny, I took that graphic to point out the irony of Obama’s evil quest to serve the stock market rather than the real economy. That the “defense” of Obama is that he is following harmful right-wing economic policies.

    I’ve found it horrific that “progressive” blogs have been “fact-checking” GOP talking points with all this stuff about frugal and austere Obama has been. Jeez, that’s one of the things I hate about him.

    Admittedly, I was one of the (few) members of the liberal blogosphere to notice Obama’s neoliberalism during the 2008 primaries (and I have the huge drop in readership to show for it), but I doubt many people who cast a ballot for him, even those who already distrusted him, imagined he would be as bad as he’s been.

  5. Thomas Nephew Says:

    One could and arguably even should take it that way, but the times I’ve seen it displayed it’s used as a pro-Obama argument, to the point where I’m really not sure even the author gets/got what s/he was saying. I think a lot of Democratic Party supporters/fans are thoroughly taken in by and approving of the “ha! this is *your* policy, what’s your complaint” notion of getting the median voter. (E.g. this from Van Hollen, which I saw with my own eyes.)

    You’re right, you called a lot of this stuff early on; I kept giving benefit of the doubt, even after, e.g., the Goolsbee/NAFTA thing during the 2008 primaries. Given that part of what Obama’s done wrong (IMO) is go with a Rubin-Clinton-ish team once elected (Summers, Emanuel, Geithner), I’m not sure Clinton would have been better. Looking back at 2008 from that perspective, and knowing that Edwards couldn’t/wouldn’t keep his pants on, we were screwed from the get-go.

    PS: hi! really great to hear from both of you.

  6. Seth Edenbaum Says:

    Here’s the context for Maddow’s statement. Here’s a NYT review of her book on American militarism

    If she’s an Eisenhower Republican I’ll take her over most liberals.

    Avedon “Admittedly, I was one of the (few) members of the liberal blogosphere to notice Obama’s neoliberalism during the 2008 primaries ”
    That’s because most members of the liberal blogosphere were neoliberals until very recently, if not still. The Clintons, both of them, were and are the apotheosis of neoliberalism. Valerie Plame was CIA and she and her husband were lionized.
    Rick Perlstein in 2008: “Philip Agee was never part of any solution.”

    American liberalism like American internationalism is the nationalism of good intentions. If the fantasy of American exceptionalism is fading, it’s not because anyone is fading it.

    Liberalism has moved to the left as it moved to the right: “Liberals” called themselves “Liberal” and drifted first one way and now another, with maximal self-aggrandizement and minimal self-awareness.

  7. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks for writing, Mr. Edenbaum. I agree with your “nationalism of good intentions” and “fantasy of American exceptionalism” remarks.

    My post was not meant as a full broadside against Ms. Maddow, but as a comment about one statement she made, and the kind of approach to politics it exemplifies. The context you supply (“Valley Advocate” interview) seems to me to simply repeat the somewhat short-sighted statement, rather than elaborate on it in any way that makes me think “OK, now I see that differently.” The nation’s politics and Supreme Court have moved to the right; that’s no excuse for defining “liberal” as what an Eisenhower Republican once was. And while I — again — did not mean to make Ms. Maddow the focus of the post, the review you cite by Janet Maslin can be set against others — notably Rachel Maddow and conservatism, the new liberalism (Charles Davis, Al Jazeera): “it’s nice to see a prominent progressive at least trying to grapple with the evils of militarism and rise of the US empire. It’s just a shame the book isn’t very good.” The review is worth reading; I can’t do it full justice here, but Davis notes/asserts that in the course of taking issue with just one development (Congressional abdication of the war power), Maddow’s book “Drift” perpetuates a lot of comfortable (Eisenhower era) myths about US foreign and military policy: US at heart a peaceful nation, glorifying the military.

    I don’t fully get the relevance of Rick Perlstein’s article on Philip Agee to this discussion. I’ll say that to me it’s one of the rare disappointing articles by Perlstein; a sentence like “His chronicle frequently justified the hyperbole” [that the US was spreading fascism] seems self-negating to me. While I don’t think I could do what Agee did, I don’t think I’d mock him for “New Age” idealism given what he knew first hand; I think it’s quite conceivable that the best thing to do with the CIA would be to abolish it and start over.

  8. Seth Edenbaum Says:

    My point was that liberals a few years ago, are not what they are now, and they can’t or don’t articulate the difference. They’re also not what they once were. Tom Lehrer was tougher than Jon Stewart

    You post a link to “an activist and writer who splits his time between Washington, DC and Nicaragua” and who according to his own webpage writes for Naked Capitalism, and Yves Smith, AKA Susan Webber of Aurora Advisors. I’m not condemning that; it’s interesting.

    Liberals now have household help. They wore their hearts on their sleeves and defended Bill Clinton, who was to the right of Brian Mulroney, and who Pierre Trudeau called simply “a Republican”. Reaganomics began with Carter. The Kwangju massacre was Carter.

    “I think it’s quite conceivable that the best thing to do with the CIA would be to abolish it and start over.”
    Start over

    Tony Judt was not a “liberal” and I’m sure Jon Stewart pays people to do his laundry and clean his kitchen and his toilets. That doesn’t bother me. It interests me that he’s casually more of an internationalist than most “serious” liberal commentators.

    -“After the latest depressing news from the Middle East I think we have to start asking just how inhumane it would be for Israel to just expel the Palestinians from the occupied terroritories.[sic] The result would probably be out-and-out war with the neighboring Arab states, but Israel could win that.
    All forced population transfers are humanitarian disasters, of course, but so is the current situation. It’s not like there’s not any room in the whole Arab world for all these Palestinian Arabs to go live in, it’s just that the other Arab leaders don’t want to cooperate.”
    -“David Duke, president of Americans in Support of Palestinian Freedom…”:
    -“You have to either live in the countryside or live in the city and be really rich to say that rubber tomatoes suck. For those humans who live in the city and are not really rich, rubber tomatoes provide a welcome and tasty and affordable simulacrum of the tomato-eating experience.”

    The first quote above is Matthew Yglesias. The second is Duncan Black. The third is Brad DeLong
    It interests me that I doubt Rachel Maddow, or Jon Stewart would say anything in public quite as offensive as those three quotes.

  9. » Blog Archive » Outgrowing Booker T. Obama Says:

    […] and very badly confused on bread and butter issues […]

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