As John mentions below, we attended Michael Barone’s fall briefing presentation for the Center of the American Experiment at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis last night. As you might expect, Barone was brilliant, breaking down the current political scene with insight and eloquence.
Barone began with a self-deprecating autobiographical account of his long-standing interest in demographics and psephology. He dated it to his parents’ acquisition of the 1950 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia when he was six or seven years old.
What was so important about the World Book? It included 1950 Census information that allowed him to draw comparisons with the 1940 Census data. When his mom would tell him to go out and play, he recalled, he would go to the basement and tabulate the Census data.
He continued the self-deprecation with a discussion of the professions he has pursued since graduation from Yale Law School. He traced the arc of his career (supposedly) downward from working as an attorney to working as a political consultant to working as a journalist. By his account, this arc marked a decline in income and intellectual integrity at each step. The next step down would be academia.
Barone placed the upcoming elections in historical context, touching on many of the themes he has explored in his books and columns. Although current trends favor Republicans in the congressional and gubernatorial races, he reiterated his view that we are living in a period of open field politics.
Reviewing the most recent Gallup Poll survey of likely voter turnout, a subject he covered in this column on Monday, he said that he thought that the upcoming elections might well resemble those of ’94 — not 1994, but rather 1894. As he writes in the column, the Gallup turnout numbers suggest a potential outcome like 1894, when Republicans gained more than 100 seats in a House of approximately 350 seats. It is the kind of joke you can crack when you have an encyclopedic command of American political history. He emphasized that in an era of open field politics, however, whatever gains the Republicans make in November are subject to the same kind of vagaries Democrats are currently experiencing.
Barone also made the point that whatever success the Republicans experience in November will not flow from any rekindled love on the part of the electorate with the party. It will express the revulsion of the electorate with the Democrats’ misreading of the mandate they received in the elections of 2006 and 2008. He expressed some relief that our current hard times had not caused the American people to embrace big government liberalism. At this point, he argued, Obamacare is the most unpopular major legislation passed by Congress since the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854; he explored parallels between the passage of Obamacare and the Kansas-Nebraska Act in this column. Barone pointed out that the Kansas-Nebraska Act killed one party (the Whigs) and split the other (the Democrats).
Barone took issue in passing with the liberal historiography of the Schlesinger variety touting the popularity of the New Deal. He attributed the reelection of Roosevelt in the 1940 contest against Wendell Willkie to the desire for an experienced leader at a time when world war had broken out. This is a theme he also pursues in chapter 16 of Our Country:The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan.
Here Barone identified the Tea Party movement as the most positive and unexpected development of the past 20 months. Harking back to our foundation in limited government, Barone noted that our political debate has been transformed into an argument between the heirs of two fundamental schools of political thought, the Founders and the Progressives. The Founders stood for the expansion of liberty and the Progressives for the expansion of government. It is a point he explored in this column.
Barone also observed that the Obama administration’s ventures in “gangster government” were not going down smoothly. He cited the recurrence of gangster government via Secretary Sebelius last month, an episode he explored in this column.
In the question-and-answer period, Barone discussed the feeling among us that America is a blessed country. We look back on the outcropping of great statesmen among the founding generation as something almost miraculous. In recent years Americans have been devouring books on our Founders — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton, among others. Ron Chernow’s new biography of George Washington is only the most recent example. Washington meant to help establish the United States as a continental republic setting an example for all mankind, Barone added, and this is what he did.
Our history shows men of greatness turning up at moments of national crisis. Lincoln saw us through the Civil War to victory just before he was assassinated. Roosevelt provided the leadership necessary to victory in World War II and then died. (I would add to this account of American good fortune that Roosevelt replaced Henry Wallace with Harry Truman before he did so.) Ronald Reagan came out of Hollywood to bring us victory in the Cold War. It is not strange to see the hand of Providence in these events. Barone wondered if the disquiet among the electorate might represent the feeling that we lack a leader in office who is equal to the challenge of the moment.
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“Arise and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” Winston Churchill