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TUCKER: Presidential election parallels: 1932 and 2012

Today’s confident GOP mustn’t repeat FDR’s sudden swerve toward statism

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John W. Davis

Thanks to the increasingly evident failure of President Obama’s economic policies, Republicans have the opportunity to regain the White House in 2012. Defeating the Democrats is the first step, but will the GOP be able to govern consistently with its campaign pledges? A brief look at 1932 provides a sober warning.

The stock-market crash of 1929 and the resulting recession presented the Democratic Party with a golden electoral opportunity. President Hoover, a progressive Theodore Roosevelt Republican, had responded to the financial crisis by raising government spending, introducing myriad initiatives designed to stimulate the economy and sanctioning a sizable (at least for his day) federal deficit. By 1932, the result was higher unemployment and a stagnant economy.

Sensing a monumental electoral opportunity, the Democrats approached the 1932 election with confidence and focus. The party turned to its 1924 nominee, conservative John W. Davis, by then a leading Wall Street lawyer, to write a platform that would provide the philosophical underpinning for a return to power. It is instructive to read from the platform on which the Democrats went to the people in 1932:

“We advocate an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance to accomplish a saving of not less than 25 percent in the cost of the Federal Government. And we call upon the Democratic Party in the states to make a zealous effort to achieve a proportionate result.” If that were not sufficient, they thundered for “the removal of government from all fields of private enterprise except where necessary to develop public works and natural resources in the common interest.”

With his platform in hand - a platform on which any 21st-century Tea Party candidate could easily run - the Democrats raucously nominated the genial governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his acceptance speech to the convention, FDR gave hearty support to the principles of that platform:

“I know something of taxes. For three long years I have been going up and down this country preaching that government costs too much. I shall not stop preaching that. As an immediate program of action we must abolish useless offices. We must eliminate unnecessary functions of government that are not definitely essential to the continuance of government.”

On the campaign trail that fall in Pittsburgh, Roosevelt attacked Hoover for the “50 percent increase in spending since 1927 - the most reckless and extravagant past that I have been able to discover in the statistical record of any peacetime government, anywhere, anytime.” He blasted Hoover for trying “to centralize control of everything in Washington” and then called specifically for a 25 percent reduction in government spending.

On Oct. 30, just days before the election, the New York Times prominently ran an op-ed column by Davis titled, “Why I am a Democrat.” Davis made the case for Roosevelt by harkening back to the party’s Jeffersonian principles: “Any nation that continues to spend more than it receives is headed for inevitable disaster; neither a nation nor a man can find solvency by borrowing; neither he nor it can spend its way into prosperity nor beg itself into comfort. … If the Democratic Party is successful, it will balance the budget. Instead of striving to give every man a share of governmental help, borrowing from impoverished Peter to pay poverty-stricken Paul, it will aim to make it possible for every man to help himself.”

The election returned a Democratic victory of staggering proportions. The Democrats swept 57 percent of the popular vote and carried the Electoral College by 313 to 59 votes. In the House, the GOP lost more than 100 seats, while the Democrats held a massive 313-to-117 majority. Similarly, the Democrats picked up 12 Senate seats.

During the post-election lame-duck period, a cagey FDR laid very low as “the Hoover recession” deepened. He refused to disclose his plans, and conservative Democrats began to worry that the president-elect might not hew to his campaign rhetoric. Just for good measure, Davis wrote a lengthy front-page op-ed column for the New York Times on the Sunday before FDR’s inauguration in which he outlined in considerable detail the traditional Jeffersonian philosophy of the Democratic Party:

“The chief aim of all government is to preserve the freedom of the citizen. His control over his person, his property, his movements, his business, his desires should be restrained only so far as the public welfare imperatively demands. The world is in more danger of being governed too much than too little. It is the teaching of all history that liberty can only be preserved in small areas. Local self-government is, therefore, indispensable to liberty. A centralized and distant bureaucracy is the worst of all tyranny.

“Taxation can justly be levied for no purpose other than to provide revenue for the support of the government. To tax one person, class or section to provide revenue for the benefit of another is nonetheless robbery because done under the form of law and called taxation.”

Davis’ eloquent words fell on deaf ears. As FDR and his advisers began to construct their policies, Davis’ worst fears were soon realized. The conservative rhetoric of the 1932 Democratic platform and the campaign speeches was soon forgotten as the new president and his party increased government intrusion into the private economy, expanded government spending, sanctioned increased deficits and raised taxes to confiscatory levels.

The Republicans stand now where the Democrats stood in 1932. The country appears poised to embrace traditional, conservative, free-market policies, but will the GOP have the discipline and focus to govern consistently with its campaign rhetoric? Correcting the economic course of the country will not be easy or quick. It will take a nominee who will not just campaign - but will lead and govern - from the strength of his convictions.

Garland S. Tucker III is president of Triangle Capital Corp. and author of “The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election” (Emerald Book Co., 2010).

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