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Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008 | During a meeting at the Union-Tribune a few years back, I listened to one of its leading lights expound on the irrelevance of Dwight Eisenhower as president. For him, Eisenhower represented years of muddled mediocrity, wasted time for the great conservative awakening to come.
For me, the opposite is true. Republican Eisenhower represented a time — clearly unlike today — when Americans were closely knit economically and politically. Eisenhower, who might have run in 1952 as a Democrat, created our “middle class society,” continuing the wartime and postwar tradition of non-partisanship.
Compare that with today. A CBS/New York Times poll during the political conventions last week showed a nation divided, with politicians leading the way as extremists. On abortion, for example (an issue that affected both vice presidential choices), the poll showed a mere 9 percent of GOP delegates believed abortion should remain available. Among Democrats, 70 percent supported that position. Similar huge gaps among delegates were found on the Iraq war, gay marriage, taxes and health care.
The biggest gap, however, was not between delegates of the parties, but between delegates and the general population. Twice as many Republican voters as delegates want abortion to remain available, and more than half of Democratic voters prefer stricter limits. Unlike GOP delegates, two-thirds of all voters want better health care coverage, and only a third believes the Iraq war should have been waged. While 77 percent of Republican delegates believed holding down taxes was more important than providing better health care, among GOP voters barely half took that position.
Eisenhower’s non-partisan tradition — reflected last month in granddaughter Susan Eisenhower’s speech at the Democratic convention — survived him for a while. His successor, Democrat John Kennedy, cut taxes. Republican Richard Nixon raised them. No ideology there. When Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, signed Medicare and Medicaid into law in 1965, 70 Republicans were in support and 47 Democrats opposed. Unlike today, it was a time when issues determined votes, not party.
The Pew Research Center tells us that half the population today believes the country is divided economically into two distinct classes, one rich one poor. Twenty years ago, less than a quarter believed in such a division. The Wall Street Journal reports that the richest 1 percent of Americans earns 21 percent of national income, the highest since the 1920s. Tax rates today are as low as in the Twenties, helping to explain the speculation, bubbles and financial collapses that are wreaking havoc on markets.
In the 20s, the top income tax rate was 24 percent and the top estate tax was 20 percent. Those two taxes reached their top rates of 91 percent and 77 percent under Republican Eisenhower. The rich weren’t as rich and the poor weren’t as poor as in the 20s or today. CEOs earned 40 times the average worker’s wage in the 1950s. Today, they earn 350 times more. Today’s top income tax and estate tax rates are 35 percent and 45 percent respectively, and Republicans would eliminate both taxes if they could.
Political and economic polarization go hand in hand. Today, the wealthiest one-third of Americans vote Republican by 14 percentage points more than they vote Democratic. In Eisenhower’s time, the difference was 4 percent. The Eisenhower years found progressive Republicans to the left of Democrats and conservative Democrats to the right of Republicans.
Such polling provides arguments for those who believe political extremism is driving economic extremism, not vice versa. Free market excesses do not create political constituencies to defend them, rather political excesses create the economic disparities that make it possible for 1 percent of the population to earn 21 percent of national income.
The difference between the two just-finished political conventions was stark. Democrats put on a more entertaining show, but that’s to be expected with Stephen Spielberg on hand. Because of hurricanes and not knowing what to do about George W. Bush, Republicans got off to feeble start. But the crucial difference was that Democrats reached out beyond the delegates, beyond the party to the country at large, while Republicans spoke exclusively to their base.
Listening to Sarah Palin, a uniquely unqualified candidate in a nation that has had plenty of them, talk of guns, God, tax cuts and patriotism, I wondered if Republicans really believed such blather could divert the nation’s attention from its real problems of a faltering economy, weak currency, ruinous debt, mortgage collapse, 6.1 percent unemployment rate and decline in national wealth, influence and prestige. John McCain, a deregulation hawk throughout his career, now complains that the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are a result of a failure of “regulation and oversight.” I understand why he made no mention of Bush at the convention, but he can’t have things both ways.
When McCain mentioned Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan as his party’s icons, I wish he’d included Eisenhower. Eisenhower governed for all the nation, pulling his party away from the grip of Taft extremism and ending what he called the “stupid” Republican goal of ending New Deal programs like Social Security and the minimum wage.
Eisenhower’s “middle class society” set the tone for both nation and the Congress. Compare that to Bush, who cut taxes on the rich and tried to privatize Social Security. As for health care, Bush tells the poor to go to emergency rooms for treatment. So much for preventative medicine.
A few years ago, it looked like McCain might be the man to govern in the Eisenhower mold. But in turning his back on his Senate record and attaching himself to the GOP base of money, guns, God and the South, candidate McCain resembles more than ever Bush, the champion divider, the 50 plus 1 decider, history’s most unpopular and soon forgotten president.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.