According to the New York Times, Democratic operatives are studying elections like 1996 and 2004 to develop a strategy against Mitt Romney.
Democratic planners seem to have settled on replicating the 2004 election. Republicans won that contest by brutally mocking John Kerry as a “flip-flopper,” a politician who switches positions to fit the national mood. Check out this memo from Priorities USA, or this video from American Bridge, or this microsite from the DNC, or these hits from the Obama campaign — it’s all the same message, that presumptive GOP nominee Romney flips his positions and can’t be trusted.
Next year’s election, however, has striking similarities with 1936, not 2004. Like Roosevelt, Obama is entering the year with high levels of unemployment and slow economic growth. Like Roosevelt, Obama has lost the confidence of much of the national press. Like Roosevelt, Obama is entering the election year with uninspiring poll numbers. Anti-corporate populism is alive and well today in America, just as it was during the thirties, when even Huey Long contemplated a challenge to Roosevelt on a platform of anti-Wall Street anger and fighting against income inequality.
The selection of Mitt Romney also echoes the strategic thinking of Republicans in 1936. At the time, Republicans were divided, but big business interests, particularly the du Pont family, simply wanted someone who could win. Over objections from the party’s far right faction, they nominated Alf Landon, a very moderate governor from the Midwest. Landon’s ability to win in Kansas during the Democratic sweep year of 1934 (back then, Kansas was seen as an anti-corporate bastion) showed his cross-partisan appeal, much as Romney’s victory in Massachusetts has convinced many that he can win in blue swing states. As a supporter of some New Deal policies, Landon was vulnerable to the flip-flopping charge. But like the national GOP strategists of today, who support Romney despite passing a health reform law nearly identical to Obamacare, the planners in the thirties hoped Landon’s left of center governance would be viewed as a form of responsible pragmatism to the American electorate.
Romney’s political biography, as a businessman reformer who ran against the corrupt Massachusetts machine, could be compared to Landon, a Bull Moose reformer and oilman who shook up Kansas politics.
Moreover, big business interests are poised to play an unprecedented role in 2012 just as they broke records in 1936. Exploiting the Citizens United decision, corporations will dump several billion into the election next year to smear Obama and decisively crush Democratic Senate candidates (and to a lesser extent, maintain the majority in the House). The success of the Koch secret meetings and growth of highly ideological trade associations (think the American Petroleum Institute, the Chamber, etc) has led to an unparalleled level of corporate solidarity in American politics. And this sort of unity of the 1% will mean a higher level of campaign coordination than in previous elections. Indeed, just as big business will break all campaign spending records and swamp Obama’s best fundraising efforts next year, in 1936, Republicans outspent pro-FDR Democrats $8.9 million to $5 million.
In 1936, big business finally got their act together and put forward a multifaceted campaign to defeat Roosevelt. They created a network of front groups, managed in part by something called the Liberty League. They hired Hollywood image experts to rework Landon’s interactions with the press, and to produce a series called “Liberty at the Crossroads,” a popular radio drama that claimed the New Deal would lead to communism. The RNC of 1936 developed the “Industrial Division” to outsource electioneering efforts to large corporations, which reminds me very much of how Republicans today will use corporate partners to urge employees to vote Romney (I discussed this new phenomenon at the Campus Progress convention earlier this year).
Roosevelt’s opponents had more money, the biggest communications apparatus possible, and the support of the nation’s largest companies, yet they still lost in one of the most dramatic landslides in history.
Roosevelt won by ignoring the policy positions of Landon. He flanked national Republicans in January of 1936 by launching a political assault on Wall Street fat cats in charge of the GOP. In spring of 1936, Senator Hugo Black (D-Alabama) pressed on with his investigation of corporate front groups, exposing the financiers of anti-New Deal fake “grassroots” groups (and to an extent the rich donors pulling the strings of the Landon campaign) were the same people who destroyed the economy. The investigation revealed to the American people that Roosevelt still faced an uphill battle, that the “economic royalists” still had too much political power, and that Landon and his allied front groups were merely puppets of a moneyed and selfish aristocracy. Roosevelt’s top political hand, James Farley, mapped out a strategy of running against robber barons like the du Pont family rather than wasting time by talking about Landon’s record. The American people saw past the GOP/Wall Street propaganda machine and voted Roosevelt. The strategy worked.
I understand the temptation to run against Romney as a flip-flopping opportunist. It’s pretty easy to demonstrate and Romney continues to try to reinvent himself, even while shooting himself in the foot at times. That being said, do the American people care? Outside the bubble of Washington DC, will Americans reject Romney simply because he has changed his positions multiple times? For many independent voters, the ability to change position and support smart policies (like health reform), is a virtue, not a vulnerability. The reason Kerry lost, in my most humble opinion, was the failure to crystallize opposition to the war in Iraq, and the flip-flopping charge spoke to his inherent weakness in the face of tough decisions like foreign policy. Today, Americans for the most part feel cheated by the economy and by the political system, and that feeling has exploded with the growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Will a campaign centered on flip-flopping really speak to this sentiment? I doubt it.
There are many other lessons for Obama from the FDR era. The comparisons are far from perfect, especially because the Great Depression left people far more resentful of Wall Street than our current ‘Jobless Recovery,’ but the 1936 election is still instructive.