A Return to Normalcy in 2016?
Without looking it up, I was unable to name the Democratic candidate for president in 1920. The name is James M. Cox, a successful two-term governor of Ohio and Democratic Party leader – in his day, a politician as widely known as Hillary Clinton is today.
Unfortunately for Cox, he was running in the shadow of Woodrow Wilson. During eight years of heavy-handed progressivism, Wilson expanded the powers of government by instituting a federal income tax, reinstating the military draft, and creating a host of regulatory agencies (including the IRS and the Federal Trade Commission). By the time it was over, Americans had had enough. They were eager for a return to normalcy.
Harding sensed that and adopted “normalcy” as the catchphrase of his campaign. He went on to win in a landslide (404 to 127 in the electoral college) and to serve as one of the nation’s most popular presidents. When Harding died suddenly in 1923, Calvin Coolidge assumed office.
Coolidge then presided over one of the greatest periods of economic growth in American history. In his first year in office, he lowered taxes, used surplus revenue to begin paying down the war debt, and instituted an across-the-board reduction in government spending.
As president, Coolidge focused relentlessly on cutting waste and inefficiency, reducing government agencies and personnel, and blocking activist legislation. He rejected proposals to increase taxes on “the rich,” noting that “[t]he wise and correct course to follow in taxation ... is not to destroy those who have already secured success but to create conditions under which every one will have a better chance to be successful” (Inaugural Address, March 4, 1925). In nearly every instance, he opposed the expansion of government powers. In a remarkably prescient observation, he pointed out that progressivism was invariably advocated “by that type of public official who promises much, talks much, legislates much, expends much, but accomplishes little” (The Price of Freedom, p. 206).
The small-government, supply-side principles of Harding and Coolidge form a stark contrast against those of their predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, and to those of our current president. Under Harding and Coolidge, U.S. GDP expanded from $73.6 billion in 1921 (Harding’s first year in office) to $103.6 billion in 1929, when Coolidge stepped down. By contrast, GDP during Obama’s first five years in office has barely nudged, only increasing by a cumulative 10% over the entire five-year period (from $14.219 trillion in 2009 to $15.684 trillion in 2013). Under Harding and Coolidge, the increase was just under 41%.
To a remarkable extent, conditions today resemble the run-up to the election of 1920. Like Wilson, who governed in an autocratic manner even before he suffered a stroke and secluded himself in the White House, Obama appears only before carefully vetted audiences and now rules without even the pretense of congressional approval. Like Wilson, Obama’s policies have produced slow growth and the prospect of economic disaster ahead (Wilson’s expansion of government resulted in inflation and a severe recession). And like Wilson, Obama has become increasingly unpopular in his second term.
Also like Wilson, Obama’s foreign policy has now been repudiated by members of both parties. Obama’s fiascos in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Crimea, and the Ukraine and his weakness toward China reflect misguided assumptions concerning the projection of military force. “Leading from behind,” whatever that means, can never constitute the policy of a superpower – though in one way or another, it has always been the policy of liberals like Obama. As Jean Kirkpatrick wrote in her classic essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” every progressive shares the same mistaken view that the universal interests of “mankind” trump American national interests. The result is always weakness and misallocation of resources. The State Department’s recent decision to continue funding the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas at some $500 million annually, even after its decision to govern with Hamas, is just one example.
By the end of his disastrous second term, Wilson was a very ill man, isolated from all except his wife and doctor. But it was not his health that was the problem; it was that the consequences of his expansion of government were coming home to roost. By the time Wilson left office, the American people were disgusted with his radical agenda. Unfortunately for James M. Cox, he was a progressive who had supported Wilson’s policies at home and abroad, including Wilson’s plan to place America under the jurisdiction of international government, and he continued to support the League plan throughout the 1920 campaign.
Progressivism failed under Wilson for many of the same reasons it has failed under Obama. By constraining the free market, progressives limit growth. By projecting weakness abroad, they embolden our enemies and make the world an unstable and dangerous place. The assault on Benghazi did not simply “happen” under Obama. Obama’s weakness, and that of his secretary of state, invited it, just as weakness in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Ukraine, and a dozen other countries has invited assaults on American interests.
Hillary Clinton, who clearly has decided to run, is another James M. Cox, a well-known progressive running in the shadow of an increasingly unpopular president. While she remains cagey about her positions on the unpopular policies of her predecessor, Hillary can never disavow progressivism itself. She was herself a central player in the Obama presidency. All she can do is portray herself as “another kind” of progressive, which she is not.
I suspect that by 2016, Obama will have become not just unpopular, but the least popular of American presidents. His approval rating now stands at 41%, far below that of George H. W. Bush (with a 58% favorable rating). Republicans will be able to run on the promise of returning the country to what it once was, and what it once had: the world’s unabashed superpower, and its most dynamic economy. All that Hillary can offer is the idea of the first female president. We’ve been down that path before. Americans are tired of “historic” presidents. There are ready for competent ones.
James M. Cox lost the election of 1920 because he was just a poor man’s Wilson. Hillary Clinton will lose in 2016 because she’s just a poor man’s Obama. As the nation yearns for normalcy, Hillary Clinton is destined to run and to fail. And like James M. Cox, she is destined to become a minor footnote in American politics.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American politics and culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).