I’ve thought a lot over the last few years about an axiom attributed to Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The question to me was whether the presidency of Barack Obama would “rhyme” with that of Jimmy Carter or Franklin Roosevelt. Given the 2012 election results, FDR might be the more apt precedent.
For a while, it appeared that the 2012 presidential election would parallel the 1980 election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Like today, in 1980 the economy—and particularly the job market—had been sluggish for years. Then, as now, there was an uneasy sense of American decline on the world stage. Under Carter, the Soviets seemed ascendant; today, militant Islam poses the greatest challenge to our interests. In both cases, the first-term Democratic incumbent seemed tentative and constitutionally incapable of admitting that “the other side” was ruthlessly aggressive and expansionist—a true threat to individual rights and international peace. Carter pulled the rug out from under the Shah and in effect surrendered Iran to control of the mullahs; Obama did essentially the same to Mubarak and left Egypt to the tender mercies of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Surely, I thought, Americans would reject this trajectory of decline and turn to a leader with a more positive vision—a vision of economic vigor and a resolve to face up to a militant tyrannical ideology. Surely Americans would repudiate Obama as they did Carter.
I and many others were wrong. We’ve changed over the last 32 years. The majority that prevailed then has gone. The demographics have shifted, another generation has passed through our deficient educational system, and a lot more people are dependent on government support and will vote for the party that will keep the spigot turned on.
As it turned out, the 2012 election echoes the 1936 election rather than the 1980 election. In 1936, at the end of FDR’s first term, the economy remained mired in the depression that Roosevelt had inherited from Hoover. As historian Burton Folsom showed in his masterful book, “New Deal or Raw Deal?,” many voters could see that the economy hadn’t returned to a healthy state under the incumbent, but so many of them had been on the receiving end of FDR’s massive New Deal spending binge that they voted for FDR to keep the handouts heading their way instead of risking change. Of course, that wasn’t the only reason they voted for FDR, but it was undeniably a major factor. (For the record, 1936 was a landslide, and 2012 was not.)
Now that Barack Obama has won re-election, the parallels that I have drawn in the past to him and FDR seem stronger than ever. In terms of government spending, George W. Bush’s second term can now be viewed as Herbert Hoover redux, and Obama’s additional ramping up of the Bush spending explosion eerily mimics FDR’s post-Hoover strategy. Perhaps the most breathtaking parallel between FDR’s and Obama’s Big Government agendas is this: In his first five years in office, FDR spent more than the previous 31 presidents combined; in eight years as president, Obama will have doubled the national debt accumulated by all 43 of his predecessors (unless, of course, Uncle Sam’s farcical finances blow up before then).
Obama adopted the cynical strategy of the opportunistic politician—his campaign was directed to various special interest groups to line up their votes. Romney was more the statesman, campaigning primarily on the more idealistic theme of fixing a broken country. We can see which strategy prevailed. Perhaps the Curley strategy has now succeeded on a national level, with a majority of the American people willing to trade a thriving economy for government security.
It seems possible that Romney was the Republicans’ last best hope for a long time to come—that Obama’s victory will, like FDR’s in 1936, represent the start of a long period of Democratic dominance. Think about it: If Romney couldn’t win, who could? Romney had extraordinary qualifications to be president—telegenic, articulate, likable, knowledgeable, achievements in several fields on a large stage, as squeaky clean and admirable a personal life as one could imagine. He also had the drive, commitment, and executive vision to organize a multi-year campaign, and yet, it wasn’t enough.
The 2012 election was indeed pivotal. Like Roosevelt’s victory in 1936, it may indicate that Big Government will remain the regnant ideology for many more years.
A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com.