John Steele Gordon: 2008 ... A Watershed Election?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Gordon is the author of "An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power" (HarperCollins, 2004).]

Exciting as presidential elections can be, they don't often change things fundamentally. Now and then, however, they can remake the American political landscape for years to come, and the country enters into a new era. Will 2008 be one of those watershed elections? Perhaps, but not in the way that many people think.

Let's look at a little history.

By 1932, the Republicans had been the dominant party in American politics for more than a generation. Only in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt split the Republicans, did Democrat Woodrow Wilson capture the White House (with only 41.8% of the popular vote). Four years later, despite a successful first term, the advantages of incumbency, and a world war raging in Europe, Wilson barely won re-election. In 1920, the Republicans won a huge victory and were back in the saddle.

Twelve years later, however, the country was sliding ever deeper into the Great Depression and the Republican president, Herbert Hoover, was perceived as having failed. Dour and beaten down by unprecedented events, he was no match for the ebullient Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had run on a fairly conservative platform (he hammered Hoover for failing to balance the budget, for instance). But once in office, he embarked on what was at the time a radically new program, the New Deal. It didn't end the Depression, but it transformed the country's politics, thanks to Roosevelt's personality and formidable political talents.

For the first time, the federal government came to be regarded as having stewardship of the economy and being responsible for maintaining a social safety net. The Republicans, deeply resentful of finding themselves out of power, were also out of alternative ideas. They offered little but a return to the political past – of a less-regulated economy and the ethic of personal self-responsibility – that the American people wanted no part of. The Democrats became the majority party, a position they would hold for nearly 50 years.

Only when Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero who was not perceived as a threat to the liberal agenda, ran on the Republican ticket in 1952 – and when the Democrats self-destructed in 1968 – was it possible for the Republicans to recapture the White House.

But by the late 1970s, it was the liberals who were out of ideas. The American economy was in a shambles, with high inflation, high unemployment and gas lines. The Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, like Hoover before him, was perceived as being unable to handle the situation. Ronald Reagan, running on an explicit platform of tax cuts and smaller government, beat him handily in the 1980 election.

Like Roosevelt, the optimistic, politically and media-adept Reagan remade the political landscape. The Democrats, now just as resentful as the Republicans in the New Deal era, offered only warmed-over liberalism as an alternative. Walter Mondale, Reagan's opponent in 1984, famously said, "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did." Mondale lost 49 states. Reagan went on to cut marginal tax rates yet again.

Only when Ross Perot split the Republican vote in 1992 could a Democrat win the White House (with just 43% of the popular vote). Reaganesque lower taxes and deregulation sparked an enormous economic boom that has now lasted, with two brief and shallow recessions, for more than 25 years.

Is the 2008 election likely to be a repeat of 1932 and 1980, remaking the political landscape in the process? That's unlikely. For one thing, while the incumbent is unpopular, he is not running. And the economy, while certainly dicey right now, is a long way from the desperate problems of 1932 or the very serious ones of 1980.

Instead, the election this year is between two very different political personalities....
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