How To Lose The Next Election

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“I no longer believe that there is a moral majority. I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually shares our values,” lamented Paul Weyrich, the conservative activist—and coiner of the very phrase moral majority —soon after the effort to impeach President Clinton collapsed. William Bennett, the former Education Secretary who made virtue a profit-making concern, announced that he was giving up on the American people: “I will not defend the public. Absolutely not. If people want to pander to the public and say they’re right they can. But they’re not right on this one.”

Such sentiments may sound a tad hysterical, but they’re easy enough to understand. The particular rope-a-dope political wizardry of Bill Clinton has a tendency to drive both opponents and supporters off the deep end from time to time. Then there’s the way American politics is constructed. No matter where you stand, some 40 percent of the people are almost certain to be with you on the side of the angels, another 40 percent linger among the hopelessly deluded, and the remaining, crucial 20 percent, the ones who decide nearly every election, don’t much care. It’s hard not to despair when you have to pitch all your appeals to the perennially uninterested.

And yet, Republican candidates eager to loosen the Democratic hold on the White House in 2000 would be well advised to forget the jeremiads. Americans have often responded favorably to leaders who inspired, cajoled, or flattered them, but they have never much liked being chastised.

The most widely remembered presidential scold was soon sent packing. Jimmy Carter never actually used the word malaise , but in a 1979 speech he did tell the nation that it was suffering from “a moral and spiritual crisis” and that “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” Estimable as he was in so many ways, within two years Carter would be replaced by perhaps the most unruffled optimist in presidential history.

There is no more striking example of just how much difference attitude makes in the nation’s highest office than that embodied in the contrasting presidential careers of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Probably no figure in American history has been as unfairly in American history has been as unfairly maligned as Herbert Hoover. Up to the time he was sworn in as Chief Executive his life might best be described as something out of Horatio Alger by way of Indiana Jones. Orphaned at the age of eight, Hoover was worth an estimated four million dollars by the time he was thirty-nine. He scraped his way into the first graduating class at Stanford, built his first business as an undergraduate, and then commenced a mining career that took him through one high adventure after another, all over the world.

Soon after the outbreak of World War I, Hoover ended his career in business and began one in public service that proved even more remarkable. Through his relief efforts in Europe during and after the war, he probably saved more people from death by disease or hunger than any other single individual in human history. He swept to victory in the 1928 presidential campaign. Running as a progressive Republican, he foresaw a day when poverty would be all but extinguished in the United States; no man seemed better suited to make this vision a reality.

As many historians have pointed out—most recently David M. Kennedy in his fine work Freedom From Fear: The United States, 1929–1945 —Hoover’s attempts to deal with the Great Depression have been much derided. His actions were more vigorous and farsighted than those of most of his critics—or any of his predecessors—and if in the end he did not move quite boldly or surely enough, there are few who could have done better.

Still, the success of one who did do better illustrates just how much attitude counts in the White House. Franklin Roosevelt was able to summon extraordinary courage and perseverance on behalf of the people he served, but always, even at the worst crises of his tumultuous twelve years in office, at least some part of him seems to have viewed the whole thing as glorious good fun.

During the first months after the Crash, Hoover maintained his equanimity; yet as the Depression lingered, a certain bitterness is increasingly evident. Commentator after commentator remarked upon his grim, dour demeanor and taut temper. By the 1932 election the frustration of the Great Engineer with this new, elusive enemy had begun to seep inexorably into his solemn, stuffy speeches.

On August 11 he warned that “it is not the function of the government to relieve individuals of their responsibilities to their neighbors.”

Hoover would never have used FDR’s mystical phrase; but Ronald Reagan did.

Stern words, but to whom was he talking? Some three years into the worst economic meltdown in modern times, just who was failing to meet their responsibilities? Schoolteachers in Chicago who continued to teach even though they had not been paid in six months and the city authorities had begun to confiscate their homes for nonpayment of property taxes? Farmers dumping their milk in the road because they couldn’t afford to take it to market?