When the votes were counted in the 1876 presidential election, it wasn’t clear if the next president would be a Republican or a Democrat. After elaborate maneuvering, a deal was struck: The Republicans got the White House, but the Democrats got the policy changes they wanted, namely the abandonment of reconstruction.
Something along these lines seems to have been happening ever since. Very often after Democrats are elected President, conservative policies are enacted and furthered, and conversely, after Republicans are elected President, sometimes relatively liberal policies are pursued.
First, consider President Obama. His ascension to power was acclaimed among progressives; some of us thought we had found a progressive heir to Robert Kennedy. However, Obama’s record has been abysmal. Although the mood of the country was sharply tilting to the Left when he took office, and he could have easily capitalized on this wind shift by pursuing bold policies, he shriveled like a fading flower. For example, in the beginning of 2009, a large majority of Americans wanted a single-payer health plan, or something along the lines of Medicare for all. However, Obama never put this on the table, and we got a plan in which the government will assist in financing the purchase of insurance policies, putting billions more at the feet of corporate behemoths. Although much money could be saved if Medicare were to use its bargaining power to lower the price on prescription medications, Obama shied away form this. But then again Obama got more money from the pharmaceutical industry in 2008 than either Ms. Clinton or Mr. McCain.
Similarly, Obama assiduously endeavored to keep Wall Street fat and happy, beginning with his decision to make high-finance insider Timothy Geithner Treasury Secretary. When Obama gave billions of dollars to banks and automobile companies, he did nothing to combat the impression that he was nationalizing these industries. In the case of the automobile corporations, I remember A self-professed member of the Tea Party earnestly telling me that governmental power was dangerously enhanced because, she claimed, Washington was getting preferred stock for its money as opposed to ordinary common stock. (She did not know that the term “preferred” is a misnomer as preferred stock is an inferior class of stock because it has no voting rights).
In any event, now, roughly four years after Obama took office, the stock market has regained all of its losses since 2007, and the intractable march away from equality, which began at around the time Reagan became president, proceeds apace. The top one percent gets ever increasing shares of the nation’s income and wealth and the rest of America becomes more and more unequal. Now, as sequestration dominates the news, it appears more and more likely that Obama will agree to the evisceration of Medicare and Medicaid and even of Social Security, even though the latter is in surplus and is lending money to the government.
I often thought that the 2012 election was a lot like the 1996 election. A Democrat was running for re-election and a Republican challenger campaigned in such a disorganized and pitiful matter that it seemed as if the Republicans wanted to lose. When Clinton ran for re-election, Republicans had a lot to be grateful for. He had pruned the Democratic Party of whatever populist leanings it had. Although Clinton told us in 1992 that he had not made up his mind about NAFTA, after being elected president he campaigned harder for the agreement than for any other piece of legislation, and its eventual passage accelerated the loss of American jobs to low-wage countries. In 1996, he rebuked poorer Americans by eviscerating welfare. And toward the end of his administration Clinton presided over the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, and decided that derivatives would not be regulated, which almost ensured that our economy was headed for a train wreck.
When Clinton was elected, the right screamed that his wife was a dominatrix and that he was a draft dodger, and when Obama was elected they screamed that he was a Muslim from Kenya. And of course both of them were deemed socialists. And whatever progressive inclinations possessed by either of these men were promptly overwhelmed and drowned by the right wing tide they provoked.
A short review of modern presidential history buttresses my proposition that the election of a liberal or a conservative will lead to the implementation of policies antithetical to what that liberal or conservative had proposed.
President Eisenhower got us out of Korea and refused the entreaties of hordes of myopic legislators to send troops to Vietnam (Eisenhower also sent armed forces to Little Rock, Arkansas to insure the desegregation of a school and never, to my knowledge, proposed abridging the New Deal). President Kennedy, an ardent Cold Warrior, sent the first U.S. ground troops into Vietnam, reduced the corporate income tax rate from 52 percent to 48 percent, and accelerated depreciation allowances for businesses. To wit, from 1960 to 1965 dividend payments on common stock increased by a little over 50 percent while the take-home pay of factory workers went up by only 22 percent.
President Johnson, of course, dramatically increased troop levels in Vietnam. To be fair, Johnson did preside over the implementation of The Great Society programs and passed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (It can be argued the passage of these landmark legislations were inevitable, but an adequate discussion would require another essay of its own).
LBJ did champion other progressive domestic programs. To a large extent, some of LBJ’s liberal programs were the sort of programs Michael Harrington disparaged in “Bourgeois liberalism,” a short chapter in his book The Twilight of Capitalism. Harrington explains that almost every liberal program to ostensibly help the poor helps the rich just as much or even more. For example, FDR’s payments to farmers to leave their fields fallow to support the food prices for farmers, made about two million sharecroppers homeless. This is because the largest recipients of money under the guidelines of the Agricultural Adjustment Act were owners of enormous southern farms. When they got federal money to stop growing food, they had no further need of their sharecroppers, black or white, and threw them off the soil.
Now take Richard Nixon. While Lyndon Johnson increased our troop levels in Vietnam from under 100,000 men to 500,000 men, Nixon finally removed all troops, or virtually all troops, from Vietnam. Nixon was the first president to visit communist China, which had been perceived by Americans as immensely more radical than the Soviet Union. Nixon also visited the Soviet Union twice, and initiated the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with Leonid Breznev.
In domestic affairs, Nixon proposed completely nationalizing welfare. In contrast, supposedly liberal Bill Clinton practically dismantled welfare. Also, when confronted with inflation, Republican Nixon behaved nearly like an anti-capitalistic statist. In an address to the nation in July 1971, he announced that effective at midnight (a few hours away), all prices and wages would be frozen until further notice.
Carter, like JFK before him, reduced the corporate income tax rate, this time from 48 percent to 46 percent. He embarked on a very expensive and very successful weapons programs, which led to such things as the cruise missile. Carter was somewhat hostile to urban America, slashed spending on programs to combat poverty, but was considered a liberal because he had a folksy, fried chicken manner. The ruse wore thin quickly, and Carter left office with historically low approval ratings.
President Reagan, of course, really was a conservative, and did move the country far to the right, but to a certain extent he was a little bit more liberal than Clinton. Although he slashed taxes at the outset of his presidency, he actually quashed the capital gains tax exemption in 1986. He entered into far-reaching accords and agreements with the Soviet Union, which brought about the end of the Cold War. But then again, only a Republican is allowed to make peace. If a Democrat tries to take a peace initiative all the way to the goal post, he is pilloried as a traitor and communist.
George Bush senior was also far less right wing than we have been led to believe. He nominated liberal David Souter to the Supreme Court, presided over the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and raised taxes.
I cannot think of any left-of-center projects Bush II endorsed or any that were enacted during his tenure, but every general principle has its exceptions. In some cases a man will be so staunchly liberal or so stoutly conservative that the countervailing sentiments his election induces are not enough to stop him.
One may conclude that unless a purported progressive candidate veritably glows with leftward impulses, liberals ought to vote for conservatives.