The (Dubious) Liberal Cycle

December 06, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN Jr.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. patted himself and his father on the backs in the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker last month on the grounds that "the 1992 election vindicates a hypothesis about the cyclical nature of American politics," as he put it in the Journal.

Their theory is that every 30 years the American people decide that liberals are better at running the country than conservatives and replace the latter with the former in the White House. "[T]hus Theodore Roosevelt brought in the Progressive Era in 1901, Franklin Roosevelt the New Deal in 1933 and John Kennedy the New Frontier in 1961. . . . No one, therefore, should be surprised by the arrival of a new liberal phase in 1992," Professor Schlesinger informed Journal readers on Nov. 12.

Actually, a lot of people would be surprised. As Gary Langer, senior polling analyst for ABC News, has written, "Even as the voters put [Bill Clinton] in office, they continued to endorse the central themes of the Republican Party: smaller government, fiscal restraint and the promise of steady economic stewardship. . . . Exit polls . . . support this conclusion."

Yes, and what else is new?

1. Theodore Roosevelt, or Roosevelt Major, as H. L. Mencken liked to call him, was not sent to the White House to do progressive or liberal acts by an electorate tired of conservatism. The 1900 election was won by the very symbol of conservative Republicanism -- William McKinley. McKinley had been elected in 1896 over the very liberal Democrat William Jennings Bryan. They had a re-match in 1900, and McKinley beat him again, by nearly a million votes out of a little over 13 million cast. TR was McKinley's running mate.

Six months after McKinley was re-inaugurated, he was shot and killed. Leon Czolgosz, the assassin, not the American people, began the Schlesingerian cycle.

2. Franklin D. Roosevelt (Roosevelt Minor to Mencken) was indeed the liberal or progressive candidate in 1932, and the American people knew it. No dispute there. But FDR was elected only because the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression, the worst economic calamity the nation has suffered in modern times.

3. Kennedy was not the liberal's choice in 1960. Sen. Hubert Humphrey was. Kennedy won the nomination by defeating him in the primaries. He ran to the right of him. Furthermore, Kennedy wasn't even the people's choice in 1960. The history books may record that he beat Richard Nixon in the popular vote by 115,000 votes, but that is only because Kennedy gets credit for all 318,000 votes cast for Democratic electors in Alabama. Six of those 11 electors were for Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd, probably the most conservative Democrat alive at that time. All that aside, the New Frontier was not the beginning of a liberal era. The Great Society of President Lyndon Johnson was. John Kennedy probably could not have got the Civil Rights Act or any of the other social and economic legislation of 1964-1968 through Congress, even if he had wanted to, which he may or may not have.

Just as Czolgosz initiated the first phase of the Schlesingerian cycle, so Lee Harvey Oswald, not the American people, instituted the third cycle.

4. As for 1992, Bill Clinton was the most determinedly non-liberal JTC Democrat to be nominated for president since Jimmy Carter (whom Professor Schlesinger once derided as another Grover Cleveland). He was pro-capital punishment and anti-organized labor, among other things. And he got only 43 percent of the vote running against two even more conservative candidates, George Bush and Ross Perot.

That there were liberal interludes in the White House every 30 years from 1900 through 1968 is a fact, but the argument that this was a result of "the dialectic of democracy," as Professor Schlesinger put in the New Yorker (Nov. 16) is just wrong.

It was accidental -- two assassinations and a depression.

As for the 1990s, there is no left left.

If there is a coherence to the cyclical theory, the only way the rest of the 1990s will see "a new liberal phase" is if something awful happens: a worsening economy or an assassination. No liberal Democrat -- not even Albert Gore Jr. -- could want to see that.

Theo Lippman Jr. is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.

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