Kudos to Newsweek
Yes, you’re not reading this incorrectly. For once, a major newsweekly- one of the most representative of the much despised MSM-gets it right, and gives us serious food for thought. Most of the Oct.27th issue is devoted to a series of articles that provide valuable historical perspective on the Presidential candidates and the election.
Most impressive is the lead article by the magazine’s editor, Jon Meacham. In “America the Conservative,” Meacham warns Barack Obama to keep in mind, as his introductory heading puts it, that “America remains a center-right nation,” which he calls a “fact that a President Obama would forget at his peril.” If a Democratic President does not move further right than he intended, he warns, they, like LBJ and others, end up paying “for their continued liberalism at the polls.” Using polling data as well as examination of the records of past Administrations from Johnson through Reagan, Meacham reminds his readers that most Americans are more conservative than liberal. This fact is especially true when we compare the United States to European social-democracies, although he acknowledges that in the current crisis, we are in for a new stimulus package and increased governmental spending.
For those who fear a President Obama is a closet socialist, Meacham points out that like most conservatives, Obama is against gay marriage, says he supports tax cuts, proudly proclaims his Christianity, and supports veterans’ benefits. The chances, he suggests, is that as President, he will govern right-of-center. To succeed, he cautions, any President has to appreciate our “nation’s intrinsic tendency toward conservatism.” Unlike other journalists who present negative caricatures of conservatives, he writes that to be conservative is not “necessarily to be racist, or retrograde, or close-minded.” He takes into account the views of our best historians, including the late Richard Hofstadter and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., as well as new younger historians such as Rick Perlstein, who tells Meacham that he thinks we are now living among a generation that is progressive, but subject to a center-right political system.
So, Meacham cautions a new Democratic Congress not to overreach, leaving aside the issue of whether or not a President Obama will have the will and toughness to stand against his filibuster proof Democratic majority in the House and Senate.
Meacham is answered in turn by the magazine’s Jonathan Alter, who responds in “We’re Heading Left Once Again,” that America is becoming a center-left nation. He rests his case on the vast dissatisfaction with the past eight years of the Bush Administration. Alter believes that given this context, Obama could rewrite the American social contract. But even he cautions that Obama not given into what he calls “the dumb left” that seeks capitulation to left-wing interest groups, since he realizes that even those who want a Left turn are not “ACORN activists.” What Alter advocates is a slow turn towards an America akin more to some of the European social-democratic states. He does not take into account what is widely understood- that many of these countries have a social fabric that is quickly unraveling, and that their outmoded political and economic arrangements are bringing many of them quickly to bankruptcy. He ends with his cry of hope for America: “Leftward ho!”
Finally, the brilliant Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who wrote perhaps the best book on the Reagan Presidency to appear this year, offers “A Tale of Two Fine Roosevelts.” Wilentz advises that Barack Obama look to one of John McCain’s heroes, the Progressive era President, Theodore Roosevelt. TR, who once said that “a Progressive is a conservative who sets his face towards the future,” acted much like his modern day counterparts when in the 1907 bust, when he accused business of engaging in “speculation, corruption and fraud” and masqueraded their action in words about economic freedom and individualism. And later, he reminds us, FDR denounced those whose remedies were “tinctured by the fact that they can make huge profits from the lending of money and the marketing of securities.”
Yes, Wilentz is an avowed liberal historian, considered by many to be our contemporary successor to Schlesinger Jr. And Wilentz is right to reminds readers that his mentor’s observation that FDR’s goal was to “save capitalism from the capitalists” holds true. He is astute to note that if “left unchecked, the system could self-destruct.” Indeed, had FDR not acted, demagogues like Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin, Gerald L.K. Smith and others, and revolutionaries like the American Communists, were waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces.
A lot of American conservatives see FDR as the original 20th Century villain. Here, a good antidote to that view comes from Conrad Black, who recently wrote his own massive history of the Roosevelt Presidency. In “Why the Right Should Leave FDR Alone,” appearing in TheDailyBeast.com, Black defends FDR from the assault of supply-side economists who argue that Roosevelt prolonged the Great Depression. Black reminds us of how dire things were when he took office, and how Herbert Hoover’s policies of high taxes, high tariffs and a shrunken money supply were sinking America to the bottom. FDR saved the day, by guaranteeing bank deposits, refinanced residential and farm mortgages, tolerated cartels and collective bargaining with unions to raise prices and wages, increased the money supply, and departed the gold standard. He created the Securities and Exchange Commission and Social Security—and generally succeeded. Unemployment, he notes, declined from 33 per cent when he took office to half of one per cent when he died 12 years later. “The American loony right,” Black warns, “should aim their spitballs elsewhere” at more deserving targets than FDR.
Wilentz, in his article, calls on Obama to adjust swiftly to new realities if he seeks to update FDR’s legacy. Obama, he notes, has claimed to be postpartisan. Wilentz calls on Obama to master transactional politics rather than transformational posturing, and take his lead from how both Roosevelts acted when they held office. The current crisis has given him the lead. Yet his cool demeanor means that he will not be able to avoid political conflict—this time with his own Democratic majority. Whether or not he has the gumption and the will to do just that, we will know after mid January.