Back to the future with Mitt Romney, the Wendell Willkie of our day. Consider the eerie parallels.
In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt ran for a third term, smashing the two-term tradition started by George Washington. Facing a backlash from voters for what appeared to many Americans as a power grab, Roosevelt also looked weak as the economy took another big nosedive in the late ’30s, and as Americans became more concerned over Hitler’s War in Europe and more sympathetic to Britain.
Republicans sensed victory. Senators Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg, and New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey were the leading contenders. But they were isolationists and had no real idea how to pull the economy out of its tailspin. Wall Street industrialist Wendell Willkie would get the nomination, promising that his business experience would lead the nation back to prosperity.
Willkie was a delegate to the 1932 Democrat National Convention, and had supported Roosevelt. He continued to be a a supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. But when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) pushed his Commonwealth and Southern Corporation out of the utility business in the TVA area, Willkie became a critic, denouncing government-owned companies that competed with private companies.
Roosevelt couldn’t have picked a better opponent. Willkie represented everything the majority of Americans had come to mistrust—the Wall Street fat cat turned flip-flopping politician. Roosevelt and henchmen such as Harold Ickes denounced greedy “plutocrats” of Wall Street and began a campaign we now call “class warfare,” linking Willklie to the privileged class, and denouncing the “fascism” of private business leaders who, the administration and its media allies charged, wanted to lord it over the common man.
Willkie responded with a campaign criticizing corruption in the Roosevelt programs, promising not to dismantle the New Deal, but to make it run more efficiently. He would keep the regulatory and welfare programs of the New Deal, but take the Roosevelt cronies out. He offered no specifics.
Roosevelt, mired in failed economic policies and on the brink of a world at war that many Americans wanted to avoid, still triumphed over Willkie, winning 38 states and an electoral college landslide of 449 to 82.
During the war, Willkie was a fervent ally of Roosevelt, and the President hired him as his personal representative to sell the internationalist story to all corners of the world. Willkie published a book titled One World.
In modern terms, Willkie was a RINO (Republican in Name Only). He failed to present voters with a choice, but instead offered a vaguely critical echo. Just like Mitt Romney.
Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, authored the health-reform bill that became the template for ObamaCare. How is Romney to credibly carry Republican opposition to government-run health care to the voters when he is the author of government-run health care? Denouncing the federal program while defending the state version just won’t sell.
Gov. Romney also endorsed anthropomorphic global warming, the latest theory to herd free Americans to further government bondage and higher taxation. How could candidate Romney carry Republican free-market solutions and actual science to the voters and not look like a flip-flopper?
In Ohio this week, Romney visited a GOP phone bank set up to support Issue 2, Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s public employee-reform measure now on the ballot and under attack from national labor unions. Romney had endorsed the law last June, but standing there among GOP volunteers fighting to retain it, Romney waffled. He refused to endorse it. He reinforced the negative narrative of his critics.
This was a character test. Romney failed. This was a campaign strategy test too. Who put Romney in the key state of Ohio visiting Kasich ground troops fighting for the taxpayers’ rights, only to fail to side with his own party?
The next day, Romney backtracked claiming he supported the Kasich reform “110%” claiming his earlier comments were directed at the other ballot measure in Ohio which is a referendum on mandatory health care.
Now Romney is in deeper quicksand. He was earlier asked specifically about Question 2 (the pension reform) and declined to endorse it. Now he claims he was talking about the other ballot measure which reinforces his role in making health insurance mandatory by government edict in Massachusetts.
But worst of all, in a replay of the Roosevelt campaign in 1940, Obama will transform Romney into Willkie—a Gordon Gekko candidate from Wall Street. The kind of smiling, rich fat cat that Obama and the Occupy Wall Street movement are teaching America to hate.
You don’t need to be a prophet to envision the TV ad here. The worker fired from a company taken over by Bain Capital when Romney was the CEO. In fact, the ad has already run, and Romney has already been defeated by it in his unsuccessful race for Senate against Ted Kennedy.
Harold Kellogg had worked for SCM, an office supply firm, for 11 years when he was fired after a Bain Capital funded takeover of SCM by AmPad. He and five other fired workers traveled in a van from Indiana to Massachusetts in 1994 and criss-crossed the state with their story of the real impact of Mitt Romney on the economy.
Their story soon appeared in Kennedy TV ads. Romney had been competitive in the race to that point. He lost when Kennedy successfully painted Romney as a fat cat destroyer of jobs. Think Obama is going to overlook this?
History never exactly repeats itself. But if we don’t learn the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat mistakes.
Learn the lesson of the election of 1940. Romney as the Republican nominee would condemn Republicans and the nation to four more years of Barack Obama.