My thanks to the Republican challengers for the Presidency for making me look good --- since I wrote last week that Barack Obama looked like he had no one to beat next November except himself, Rick Perry's speeches have reached the level where observers speculated whether he was drunk while deliver them, and the campaign of Herman Cain, for some the emerging front-runner, has had to spend time refuting sexual harassment allegations.
And as for issues, rather than taking on the suggestion that a $2 trillion injection would fix America and that the private sector has the funds to do it, the Republican hopefuls are falling back on slogans like Cain’s "9-9-9". Easy to remember; just don’t look at the detail.
It occurs to me that history is repeating itself. Once there was an election where a popular incumbent faced odd-ball challengers as the American economy was suffering, when unemployment was rife and when those who did have jobs could hardly afford to keep themselves and their families.
From 2012 back to the 1936 Presidential campaign. By the end of 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt had turned away from big business with the declaration, "They hate me and I welcome their hatred.” It was the politic thing to do, a vote winner.
As for the alternatives, voters were given choices such as “The Radio Priest". In the 1920s, Father Charles Coughlin set up the National Union for Social Justice, pushing for redistribution of wealth and reduction of poverty by curbing the excesses of the rich, especially those who speculated with other people’s money.
By the 1932 election, Coughlin had an audience exceeding 35 million people. He supported FDR and called then-President Herbert Hoover “the Holy Ghost of the Rich". Two years, he turned against the New Deal. Far more importantly, listeners turned against him as a one-man band, a personality who was moving towards anti-semitism. By November 1936, he had lost most of his audience.
Doctor Francis Townsend was a different proposition as a challenger. A retired medical doctor, Townsend had responded to a local Californian newspaper, seeking suggestions for cures to beat the Depression. He chose“the Old Age Revolving Pension Plan”. All citizens over the age of 60 would retire on a federal government pension of $200 a month, creating numerous job vacancies. Funds for the pension would come from a 2% sales tax. While there were many flaws, the Plan soon had 20 million supporters.
The third and potentially most serious contender was Senator Huey Long of Louisiana. "The Kingfish" had been discredited for many as an example of the worst kind of political boss but, in the early 1930s, he was seen by others as a worthy radical who planned to cap personal fortunes and redistribute stockpiles of money held by the rich. Almost 30,000 Share Our Wealth Societies sprang up nationwide as a potential threat to a worried White House. The worries were eased when Long was assassinated in September.
So what became of the Republican challenge in 1936? The nominee was Alfred Landon, “the Kansas Coolidge", a not-so-flattering allusion to the Republican President from 1923 to 1929. A Literary Digest poll conducted four weeks before the election predicted a Landon landslide. The only problem was that the survey was conducted by telephone, producing a select group of respondents.
Landon, in the biggest landslide in American history to that point, won only 36% and two of 48 states in the contest. (His homestate, Kansas, was not one of the two.)
Any lessons for 2012? If I were to suggest that Republican candidates need to offer more than sound bites and bromides, would next week --- and the next year --- make me look good again?