How Democrats Win: Defending the Social Safety Net

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Charlie Neibergall / AP; Hulton Archive / Getty Images

I was flattered to learn from Joe Klein’s Aug. 15 column in TIME that Barack Obama is reading my book ­Nixonland. The book is about the “separate and irreconcilable fears” over the past 50 years that have come to define the increasingly acrimonious cohabitation of Americans on the left and on the right. I assume Obama turned to it for insight about how he might help turn down the volume in our political conversation. But there’s also a story in Nixonland about how the Democratic Party wins, why it loses and the good things that happen when the party gets the formula right. I surely hope Obama did not miss it.

It concerns the two major axes upon which major national elections get fought. Sometimes they become battles over the cultural and social anxieties that ordinary Americans suffer. Other times they are showdowns about middle-class anxieties when the free market fails. Normally, in the former sort of election, Republicans win. In the latter, Democrats do — as we saw in 2008, when the tide turned after John McCain said “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.”

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Consider 1960. Even with all that ­famous 1950s prosperity, 1959 saw a recession. Richard Nixon blamed his defeat on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s failure to use government to subdue it. John F. Kennedy, meanwhile, enhanced New Deal programs like Social Security — and a promise to extend that legacy with ­Medicare was central to his appeal. People remember the U.S.’s first televised presidential debate for the contrast between JFK’s cool and a frantic and sweaty Nixon. What’s forgotten is what made Nixon so frantic: Kennedy’s unanswerable argument that Democrats had created those programs while Republicans opposed them.

Presenting himself as the face of calm in confusing times was essential to JFK’s victory, as it is essential to any President’s victory — which is why the Democrats lost in 1968. Nixon effectively associated them with the protesters in the streets. But even then, Nixon almost lost after his opponent Hubert Humphrey enlisted labor unions in a gargantuan last-minute push concerning which party had created Social Security and Medicare and which seemed indifferent about preserving them.

Two years later, Nixon thought he had another one in the bag — the 1970 elections, in which he campaigned tirelessly for Republican candidates, then gave an ­election-eve TV speech blaming Democrats for the “thugs and hoodlums” in the streets. Only he made a terrible mistake: he sounded just as frantic and ugly as the forces he claimed the GOP would subdue.

In contrast, the Democrats ran a response to Nixon’s hysterical election-eve address from Edmund Muskie, the calm, quiet Senator from Maine, who sat in an armchair and asked Americans to vote against a “politics of fear” that insists “you are encircled by monstrous dangers” and instead choose a “politics of trust.”

You might say Muskie’s was a very Barack Obama sort of speech — but with a difference. It was overwhelmingly partisan. It excoriated Republicans for the way they “cut back on health and education for the many … while expanding subsidies and special favors for the few.” In other words, it was just the kind of speech Obama will not give.

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That year, the GOP went bust at the polls. Then, in 1972, the Democrats ran a candidate whose speeches were more frantic than any in history. George ­McGovern, following a then fashionable theory that the middle class was prosperous enough to take care of itself and that unions were pretty much irrelevant, spoke to working-class concerns less than any Democrat had before. He lost 49 states.

McGovern didn’t give what Lyndon B. Johnson used to call “Democratic” speeches — LBJ’s shorthand for talking about which party gave the people Social Security, Medicare and the Tennessee Valley Authority and which one was willing to toss them over the side. LBJ gave such speeches all the time in 1964 — and he won 60% of the popular vote.

Here’s what LBJ knew that ­McGovern didn’t: There are few or no historical instances in which saying clearly what you are for and what you are against makes Americans less divided. But there is plenty of evidence that attacking the wealthy has not made them more divided. After all, the man who said of his own day’s plutocrats, “I welcome their hatred,” also assembled the most enduring political coalition in U.S. history.

The Republicans will call it class warfare. Let them. Done right, economic populism cools the political climate. Just knowing that the people in power are willing to lie down on the tracks for them can make the middle much less frantic. Which makes America a better place. And which, incidentally, makes Democrats win.

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