I tend to agree with Phoenix Woman over at FDL that America is coming up on a time of decision. There is going to be a new Great Depression, either this cycle or next, and when that happens Americans will have to choose how to react to it. In the last great Depression the US chose Roosevelt. Other countries (Italy and Germany among others) did not make such good decisions.
One question which inevitably arises, then, is “who is going to be Roosevelt?” The short answer is that I don’t know. Roosevelt was a very odd duck. His decision making style was very unusual, his management style was to force people with very different views to work together and fight things out, he was not particularly ideological in his means, though his ends were driven by a great sense of compassion for ordinary people which is very obvious when one reads about, or listens to, the man. He had no patience for people who said that “nothing could be done”. If that was your only policy prescription (as it was for business at the time) Roosevelt would eventually tire of, and sideline you. Nor did he have any respect for those who just wanted to let the poor and out of work suffer – this seemed to him manifestly unjust, and a failure of government’s duty to its citizens.
He was willing to try one thing, and if it failed, try another. And he went into each program with the expectation that it might fail, and that its doing so, while bad, was to be expected. You win some, you lose some, and if you fail you pick yourself up and try again until you succeed.
Born of wealth, he championed the poor, the working man, the middle class. And the rich, as a class, by 1934, hated him for it. But he swept back to victory after victory, because in a functining democracy it quickly becomes clear that one person, on vote, leaves the rich outvoted very heavily.
Which leads us to our current crop of leaders. None of the Republicans have anything like Roosevelt’s essential character. They are not driven to solve problems. They do not care for the working and middle clasess. Ron Paul, perhaps the most principled of them, explicitly rejects the possibility of the Federal government solving much of anything “government doesn’t work, and like every other Republican I’ll prove it. Except that I’m honest enough that I’ll do it by cutting off its arms and legs rather than drowning it in a bathtub of corruption.”
The current main class of Democratic contenders for the nomination doesn’t bring much solace either. All three seem to believe in American empire, though Edwards has some doubts (he might not increase the army, he doesn’t believe in the “war on terror”. All three appear to be more than willing to leave troops in Iran till as late as 2013, a remarkable admission and one that will make doing anything domestically effectively impossible (the war budget eats up all that money and a lot more). Obama seems unwilling to make hard decisions (Roosevelt may not have been ideological, but he was willing to make hard decisions, and loved a good fight). Clinton is very constrained by what she thinks is “already possible” and doesn’t move much outside of that sphere. Edwards too, though he shows more flexibility than the other two, has shown it mostly at the level of rhetoric (as with his “no war on terror” speech) and not at the level of concrete policy (so, for example, universal insurance rather than universal health care.)
If we are currently in the period analagous to 29 – things are going wrong, but while we’re twitchy we don’t really realize this is qualitatively different from prior recessions as they didn’t then, odds are that whichever canddiate (Democratic or Republican) who gets in will wind up doing “pretty much the same old” – the US stays in Iraq, there’s some minor twiddling with tax policy but it doesn’t go back to being signficantly progressive, financialization of the economy continues to seem like a good idea, inflation continues without real efforts to contain it. The Fed, lead by a man whose scholarly work says that leading into the Great Depression the Fed should have eased will probably continue an easy money policy. The other forms of credit generation which are beyond the Feds’ control will not be stopped or brought under regulatory control.
But a crisis caused by repeated asset inflation can probably not be cured by even more of the same. As the Fed tries to solve the problem by pouring gasoline on the fire; as the Presidency and Congress continue a war America can’t afford; as everyone fiddles around the edges with technical fixes to problems that go deeper than that, the situation would just get worse and worse.
Making the next president, odds are, the Hoover of this cycle.
Of the big 3 the only one I see who might have the necessary flexibility to adopt; to change to circumstances, to experiment – is Edwards. He might not, you don’t know the temper of a man till he’s tested, but I don’t see that in the other two. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps, once President, Obama’s caution and unwillingness to throw elbows, and Clinton’s world weary sense of the possbile would give way to a different idea of what is possible, and what is necessary.
But I fear not.