It is pretty well-established 20th century American history that the Rooseveltian New Deal provided a very much needed series of steps out of the Great Depression, that part of the disparate package of stimulative and social safety net policies worked and part did not, and that the advent of World War II helped create virtual full employment and a rising economic tide.

Those were desperate times and Roosevelt was a pragmatist not an ideologue.  His motto was: “We’ll try something and if it works, we’ll keep it, and if it doesn’t will try something else.”

This is relevant history for today.  The democratic socialist and left progressive wings of the Democratic Party are proposing dramatic economic changes in education finance, health care insurance, wage floors, a wide variety of stimulant measures, and even Green New Deals.

The question is whether the U.S. has a pattern of accepting bold, innovative, structural changes when the national economy is completing the longest period of sustained growth in its history, when markets are stable and rising, and when unemployment bounces around 3.5%.

The answer is no.

That does not mean it could not happen.  It does mean that Americans, including many on the economic downside, are cautious about massive expansion of government initiatives, and power, when the middle class is experiencing a degree of stability and is concerned, but not yet afraid, about the future.

Too many Americans are still struggling to achieve the American dream.  But that is a far cry from “one-third ill housed, ill clad, and ill nourished.”

This nation is a curious mixture of innovative self-image and actual cautiousness.  We think we are much more interested in change and experimentation than we actually are.  The upper twenty percent by and large do not want higher taxes.  The middle fifty percent may be restless but distrustful, thanks largely to right wing propaganda, of massive new government programs.  For those in the last thirty percent who are struggling just to hold on, they have little to lose and will try almost anything.  Except too many disappear on voting day.

The exceptions to the last observation are small farmers losing their land and yet who will vote for Trump again.

All this to raise the central question: how does the Party of change carry out bold proposals in a country that resists sweeping proposals until it has to accept them.

It is one thing to excite the farthest left base of a Party to win a nomination and quite another to win a general election requiring support from Party moderates and a majority of independent undecideds.  Two very different creatures.

Many on the left are banking on major dissatisfaction with Trump.  And there is a massive amount to be dissatisfied with.  But the historic pattern is that incumbent presidents win re-election when the economy is growing.  And ours seems to grow despite every effort Trump has made to throttle it.

Many Democratic candidates believe their life stories, experience, and charisma will close this gap between reality and history.  And, as one who has been there, I say God bless.

But it will not be easy.  Expect a lot of “don’t change horses in the middle of the stream”, “you never had it so good”, and “are you really ready for socialism?”

Perhaps this election will be a referendum on Donald Trump.  If bolstered by a number of thoughtful, practical new ideas, that may be a winnable strategy.  A president unwilling or unable to open an arena and speak to a cross section of Americans is not a confident president.  He is presumably intelligent enough to know that a re-election strategy focused only on a minority “base” is a high wire act that assumes an awful lot of Americans are stupid.

That we are not.

9 Responses to “A New Deal Absent a Depression?”

  1. Neil McCarthy Says:

    I wonder if you think we are in a moment comparable to 1972. The economy was still relatively good then for the middle class but Nixon wasn’t extraordinarily popular and your candidate (McGovern) was in favor of big changes (e.g., GAI) and lost. Now, the economy at the macro level is good but Trump is despised by a large group of people and there are Democats calling for big change.

    Anyway, your post seems to strike a cautionary tale based on your personal experience.

    Am I reading too much autobiography into it?

  2. Gary Hart Says:

    That had to be part of it, Neil, but I wasn’t thinking of that when I wrote the essay. I wrote a book about the McGovern campaign in 1973 and in the Epilogue argued that the New Deal era wasn’t producing ideas anymore. The Guaranteed Annual Income was a one-off and not part of a carefully constructed national economic plan. And, as you point out, things looked reasonably good at that point. (Curiously, Prof. Jill Lapore’s recent history, These Truths, concludes on the same point), “liberalism” (with the notable exception of Elizabeth Warren) is not coming up with big, comprehensive, game-changing programs. And even if it did, a la Green New Deal, can it be sold under current economic conditions. We shall see. GH

  3. Michael Says:

    Maybe we now live in an age that doesn’t need a crisis. Maybe all it takes is good marketing in an era where the Republican Party is devoid of any ideas other than cutting taxes, and its base is old, white and shrinking.

    A big infrastructure program should be an easy sell. People, wherever they live in this country, see its dilapidated state every day. They sit in traffic jams on crumbling roads, are delayed in overcrowded airports, put up with lousy train service, have brown water pour from their taps – on and on. A green crash program, whatever it’s called, could be sold as part of any infrastructure proposal, with the dual benefit of dealing with climate change, an issue most people know is urgent and needs addressing. There are millions of good-paying jobs that go along with it.

    Health care is also a top priority for most Americans. The Democrats took the House largely on the promise of protecting it. Health care proved a powerful motivator for driving people to the polls in 2018. It could be the best argument for giving Democrats control of the Senate, as well as the House and presidency. There are many options: Fully funding Obamacare so it can finally function as it was designed to, and perhaps include a public option. If the Democratic nominee is going to be all-in for single-payer Medicare-for-all I think the most effective plan would be to gradually lower the eligibility age by, say ten years every five years until everyone is covered. Medicare is incredibly popular not only with those using it, but also their children who see the care their parents are getting and otherwise would not be able to afford. An incremental lowering of the eligibility age would let each successive age group see their peers getting good-quality care; that they need not fear giving up their employer-based insurance. Private insurance – Dems need to tread carefully here – should be available for those who want to supplement their care, as it is in Canada and even the UK. There is a big difference between the fear caused by eliminating private insurance, and creating a system in which people are not subservient to it.

    Much of what the Democrats want to do, i.e. free college, is really just going back to the way things used to be. Eliminating college debt – that has to be popular not only with kids, but their parents, many of whom have co-signed loans.

    The biggest obstacle to all of this will be what it has always been: the opposition screaming about “tax-and-spend” Democrats. Finally, after 50 years, that meme may have run its course. Republicans can’t even run on their tax cuts anymore. Polls show people actually want more government if they feel it works for them. Democrats should make the case that money finally need be spent for the common good instead of the wealthy few. The midterms showed that Trump is a turnout machine for the Democrats. The greatest danger may actually be timidity. After two wave elections in 2006 and 2008, Obama chartered a cautious, centrist course as president, all the momentum of the previous two elections melted away in 2010, and a world of pain ensued.

  4. John Dedie Says:

    This campaign reminds me of 1971 and Biden is Muskie, Sanders is Gene McCarthy, Warren is HHH. My fear is it will end like 1972.
    This first so-called debate did not give candidates time (or try to) to discuss their ideas (free college). True it discussing Medicare for All but nothing on climate change. Harris wanted to discuss 1975.

  5. Ray Mizumura Says:

    Michael, I agree that timidity is a major risk for the Democrats. We need a candidate who inspires and motivates, and that requires consistency and assertiveness. Plus, willingness to take bold stands on controversial issues and double down when the inevitable attacks come from GOP. The political leader I most admire in the US now is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her influence is what we need more of, not less.

  6. JD Kinnick Says:

    Excellent analysis, as always from Sen. Hart. I have two quick questions for our host:

    1. Any chance of rereleasing “Right From The Start”? I have a hard bound first edition and really enjoyed your insiders perspective. It took an incredible effort to propel a virtual unknown like Sen McGovern to the nomination.

    2. Have you seen “The Front Runner”? I was one of your county chairs for the Iowa Caucus. Hard to believe that was over thirty years ago.

    Thanks and have a happy 4th if July!

  7. Brian McCarthy Says:


    You’re right and we (Democrats) will almost certainly find a way to lose the most winnable election ever by nominating a left-wing kook as Labour did in the UK during the Thatcher years. I hope I’m wrong, but the early signs are not promising.


  8. Brian McCarthy Says:

    Senator, I should have added, “Happy 4th of July”.

  9. Ray Mizumura Says:

    Happy Independence Day, everyone.
    I certainly hope that the Democratic Party unseats the President in 2020. Pessimism and name-calling don’t help too much, so far as I can see. I will volunteer for and vote for the nominee, regardless of who she or he is. I don’t know of any “left-wing kooks” who are currently running for the nomination, but such labels depend on perspective, I suppose. Thank you for this blog.

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