The New Deal Lesson Republicans Are Ignoring (At Their Peril)

[ Posted Wednesday, February 11th, 2009 – 17:57 UTC ]

Barack Obama is our first post-baby-boom president. He was supposed to usher in a new era, where we wouldn't have to fight the social battles of the 1960s all over again. Instead, we are now apparently going to fight the battles of the 1930s.

This isn't really Obama's fault, since he inherited Bush's Recession and the meltdown of America's financial system. Inevitably, references to the Great Depression were going to be made, no matter what he did. But astonishingly, the Republicans have chosen to try some revisionist history on the New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and have staked out their political position on the side of "the New Deal was a bad thing."

Amazing, but true. The Republicans, fresh off an electoral spanking in 2006 and 2008, seem to think that the road back to power is paved with F.D.R.-bashing. But while others have admirably deconstructed such "the New Deal didn't work" nonsense, I'd like to focus on attempting to teach the Republican Party that this might not be such a politically wise move to be making.

Take a quick look at the makeup of Congress, from 1927 to 1949, to see what I mean. The numbers are revealing, and they don't even include third-party members from even more liberal parties than the Democrats (Socialists, Progressives, Farmer-Labor parties, etc.).

First, here are the numbers for the House of Representatives. The bold number is who controlled the House.

[House years] -- Dem. / Rep.
[1927-1929] -- 194 / 238
[1929-1931] -- 164 / 270
[1931-1933] -- 216 / 218
[1933-1935] -- 313 / 117
[1935-1937] -- 322 / 103
[1937-1939] -- 334 / 88
[1939-1941] -- 262 / 169
[1941-1943] -- 267 / 162
[1943-1945] -- 222 / 209
[1945-1947] -- 242 / 191
[1947-1949] -- 188 / 246

Next, let's look at the Senate during the same time period.

[Senate years] -- Dem. / Rep.
[1927-1929] -- 46 / 48
[1929-1931] -- 39 / 56
[1931-1933] -- 47 / 48
[1933-1935] -- 59 / 36
[1935-1937] -- 69 / 25
[1937-1939] -- 76 / 16
[1939-1941] -- 69 / 23
[1941-1943] -- 66 / 28
[1943-1945] -- 57 / 38
[1945-1947] -- 57 / 38
[1947-1949] -- 45 / 51

A few facts to put this in perspective: F.D.R. was sworn in at the beginning of 1933. From this point on, Democrats dominated Congress for 14 years, peaking in 1937. It wasn't until the war was over and Truman was president that Republicans were able to stage a comeback. But at the beginning of the Great Depression, conservative Republicans fought tooth and nail against the "socialism" of the New Deal -- things like Social Security, unemployment insurance, federal deposit insurance, and other social programs which were wildly popular with the electorate. And they paid for it at the ballot box. Later, together with conservative southern Democrats, they staged a comeback in Congress, and were considered dealmakers due to their voting bloc (think of the "Blue Dog Democrats" today). Back then, "conservative" didn't automatically equate to "Republican," meaning the lessons aren't as clear-cut as the numbers suggest.

I'm not saying the situation is parallel, in other words. Obama's not going to get four terms in office, for instance. And hopefully, there won't be a world war in there either. But while Republicans are having to correct their historical revisionism after making wildly inaccurate statements, they might want to take a look at what happened to their party back then, when they first opposed the New Deal. It ain't pretty.

In 1937, the Senate had 96 members. 76 of them were Democrats. There were also two seats held by Farmer-Labor Party members, one seat held by a Progressive, and one by an Independent. Meaning party-line votes (assuming Democrats picked up the third-party votes) of 80 to 16. Republicans were down to double digits in the House at the same time.

So maybe the Republicans should learn the lesson that their party has previously tried to oppose a wildly popular president's bold economic recovery plan during an economic upheaval. It didn't work out so good for them back then. And, while I personally wouldn't mind fourteen years of congressional domination by Democrats, I feel duty-bound to point out to the Republican Party that slapping themselves on the back for siding with the destruction of the economy might not be such a bright idea for their political future.

Anyone who is shocked that I would issue the GOP with such a warning can be comforted by the fact that they probably won't listen. And just imagine what Democrats could do with 80 votes in the Senate -- that's guaranteed to make you feel better.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


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