Why Hillary Should Channel Warren G. Harding
Ninety-six years and two days ago, Warren G. Harding tried to jump-start his flagging quest for the Republican presidential nomination with a speech titled “Back to Normal,” in which he declared: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration.”
The speech was not an instant success. Harding won none of the final five primaries that followed. But he had recognized the national fatigue with activist progressive government as Woodrow Wilson’s consequential presidency was ending on a sour note with rising unemployment, labor strife, race riots, and backlash against the frenetic quest to establish an international League of Nations. Once Harding snatched the nomination at the Republican convention, he rode the slogan “Back to Normalcy” toward a landslide victory.
Much of the 2016 election analysis has been premised on the rise of angry populism transcending both parties, for obvious reasons. Nearly half the Democratic Party electorate voted for a candidate wielding razor-sharp rhetoric targeting “the billionaire class.” A plurality of Republican voters nominated a reality TV star who rages against professional politicians, Mexican immigrants, and Muslims.
Yet the general election begins with the candidate of insider experience and pragmatic incrementalism leading nearly every national poll, in some cases by double digits. No doubt the economic anxiety—and, in some cases, ethnic and sectarian animosity—driving the populist fervor are real. But with Donald Trump’s antics generating saturation media coverage, Trump fatigue may be starting to take hold. Perhaps Hillary Clinton is positioned to return us to normalcy.
Traditionally, political fatigue stems from the incumbent president. After eight years the country is often ready to move on. This certainly seems true today, as Barack Obama’s presidency winds down. Even if things are better than they were under his predecessor, most Americans find the current economic conditions deeply unsatisfactory. In polls, 54 percent of Americans deem the economy “poor” and only one-fourth of Americans say the country is on the “right track.”
Yet, thanks to Trump’s campaign methodology of maximum crazy for maximum media, America appears to be longing for more “no drama Obama.” A Pew poll taken in March found 75 percent of Americans felt news organizations have given Trump “too much” news coverage. And as Trump bumped Obama off our screens, public affection for the president was rekindled. Between the end of 2015 and May 10, 2016, the Gallup poll tracking Obama’s job approval on a daily basis swung from being eight points underwater to a net positive of 10 points. Many of those voters who think America is on the wrong track may be panicking about the direction of the Trump Train.
Trump’s campaign message is similar to Harding’s insofar as “Make America Great Again” speaks to nostalgia for the past. But Trump’s commitment to shattering political norms runs counter to the other elements of Harding’s call: “not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise.”
Clinton won’t want to embrace Harding’s “stand-pat” conservative ideology. But the current political dynamic gives her an opportunity to redefine American “normalcy.”
The challenge for an activist liberal president is that the payoff for new reforms is rarely immediate. The creation of the Energy Department by Jimmy Carter did not establish energy independence. The most visible development on race relations following the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed by Lyndon Johnson were race riots. Some blamed Wilson’s new Federal Reserve for the economic decline that followed World War I. None of these presidents were able to hand the presidency to a liberal successor.
Obama ran the risk of backlash when his Recovery Act, Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank bank regulations did not amount to a magic wand that instantaneously resolved every economic problem. Hiccups like the initial healthcare.gov glitches threatened to ruin the left’s hope to restore trust in our government.
But now, the slow, painstaking work of governmental problem-solving can be contrasted favorably to the prospect of giving the Oval Office keys to a narcissistic political novice who blithely and implausibly claims that “being presidential is easy.” Clinton can make activist government the new normal, while warning that a Trump White House would be chaos.
In doing so, Clinton need not let herself be tagged as the candidate of an unsatisfying status quo. Obama managed to be re-elected despite bad “right track” numbers in part because voters didn’t blame him for what still ailed the economy or the dysfunctional state of Washington, but credited him for trying to push the proverbial boulder up the hill. Clinton will still have to lay out what she wants to change, while assuring that she can pursue change without the threat of destabilization.
Clinton can’t disregard the 42 percent of Democratic primary voters who cast their ballots for a “revolution,” but neither can she pretend to be a revolutionary when she isn’t. She will need to convey that the Harding-esque desire for “serenity” that remains in our body politic is synonymous with the Obama-esque “change” which many still crave. Meeting that challenge will require making the case that when our government is constantly seeking to improve our lives, it can do so with “equipoise,” not “agitation.”