The Winds Of Political Change

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe Democratic candidate was crushed. An urban, ethnic liberal from the Northeast, he had been caught flatfooted by the waves of vitriolic attacks that smeared his background, his years of dedicated public service, the character of his beloved wife, as well as his religious beliefs and cultural values. He lost the heartland, and even the traditionally Democratic South had turned against him in unprecedented numbers, and it looked as though Republicans would continue to control not only the White House but also both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court for a long time to come.

The Democratic candidate I’m referring to was Al Smith. He lost his run for the Presidency in 1928 by a much larger margin than the one that defeated John Kerry, yet within four years, millions of the same Southerners and Midwesterners who had voted against Smith were embracing the New Deal coalition that would dominate American politics for most of the ensuing half-century. The moral of the story is that after their big loss last November, Democrats might be better off sitting on their hands rather than wringing them. In America, shifts in power rarely occur without some significant outside event. Anticipating just what that event will be—war, recession, scandal—is impossible.

“This was the greatest vote, the greatest margin and the greatest percentage (61 percent) that any President had ever drawn from the American people; we shall live long before we see its like again,” the inventor of the modern campaign chronicle, Theodore H. White, wrote after Lyndon Johnson’s lopsided triumph over Barry Goldwater in 1964. In fact we would see its like again twice in the next 20 years, and from the Republican side, as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan swamped their opponents in 1972 and 1984, respectively. Nor was White alone in his nearsightedness.

“The result was one of the great landslides of American political history, raising ominous question marks for the future of the Republican Party,” opined that wild-eyed young liberal Robert Novak after Goldwater’s defeat. This is why we historians love having the benefit of perfect hindsight. It saves us from having to propound the sort of hasty, hip-shooting predictions that can be roundly mocked afterward (usually by historians).

Some issues in our history have simmered for years, arising predictably in one campaign after another. Slavery (and later civil rights) was certainly one. The question of “hard” or “soft” money was another, playing a major role again and again in elections from the end of the Civil War into the 1930s. The same could be said, in recent decades, for the Cold War and crime.

But just as often, presidential elections have been decided by issues and events that four years earlier no one dreamed would have been important. How many people, for instance, would have predicted in the wake of LBJ’s romp that Vietnam would dominate the 1968 campaign—and force him out of the race? Who could have guessed, before 1950, that the 1952 election would hinge on a war on the Korean peninsula? Or that the obscure governor of Georgia would rise to the Presidency in 1976 thanks to “a third-rate burglary”?

In our media age, of course, political handlers have learned how to help foment such abrupt changes in the national dialogue. Bush family retainers seem to possess a particular knack for this; perhaps it is not so surprising to see how much of the 2004 election revolved around gay marriage when one considers how mired the 1988 race was in Boston Harbor.

Al Smith fell victim to the Jazz Age version of a media blitz. Smith was something very new in our presidential politics, and something not really seen since—an unabashedly urban, working-class candidate. Only 12 when his father died, he had been forced to drop out of school, later joking that he had received his “FFM” degree at Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market, sweeping up and hauling fish. Breaking into politics through Tammany Hall, he was indisputably of the machine, but he also came to transcend it, and even to sow the seeds of its demise, with a raft of vital social legislation he pushed through as leader of the New York State Assembly. Graduated to governor for an unheard of four terms, he ran a progressive administration widely admired for its honesty, efficiency, and innovation.

The defeated Smith never got over the venom that had been directed at him. Yet he was actually the wave of the future.

For all that, Al Smith was simply not what most Americans thought of as a President. Potbellied, large-nosed, sporting his trademark brown derby, his voice full of the intonations of his native Lower East Side, an avowed opponent of Prohibition and above all, a Catholic , Smith was as alien to many heartland voters then as latte drinkers supposedly are today. By the time he finally secured the Democratic nomination, he had little chance to win in any case, running as he was in a year of peace and general prosperity against an immensely popular, Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover.