Rachel Maddow: In America Today, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower Would Be Bernie Sanders in the U.S. Senate
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
You want to talk about red meat for the base? Listen to some of the language the president used. "Workers have a right to organize into unions and to bargain collectively with their employers. And a strong, free labor movement is an invigorating and necessary part of our industrial society." Wow.
How about this one? "Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of their right to join the union of their choice."
Listen to the way he goes after the right here. "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things, but their number is negligible and"--and the president says--"their number is negligible and they are stupid."
That is not what Barack Obama said last night. That is way to the left of any national Democrat at this point. That was all Republican President Dwight David Eisenhower. That was all the stuff he said when he was president.
Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, president when the top tax bracket for the richest people in this country was 92 percent. President Eisenhower defended that tax bracket. He said we cannot afford to reduce taxes until, quote, "the factors of income and outgo will be balanced." Eisenhower insisting there must be a balanced budget and that taxes on the rich are the way to balance it. Dwight Eisenhower, you know, noted leftist.
The Republican Party platform of Eisenhower's 1956 called for expansion of Social Security, broadened unemployment insurance, better health protection for all of our people. It called for voting rights--full voting civil rights for D.C. It called for expanding the minimum wage to cover more workers. It called for improved job safety for workers, equal pay for workers regardless of sex.
This is the Republican Party circa 1956. The Republican Party.
The story of modern American politics writ large is the story of your father's and your grandfather's Republican Party now being way to the left of today's leftiest liberals. If Dwight Eisenhower were running for office today, he would have to run, I'm guessing as an independent, and not as some Joe Lieberman, in between the parties, independent. He'd be a Bernie Sanders independent.
In 1982, who passed the largest peacetime tax increase in U.S. history? That would be Ronald Reagan.
Who called for comprehensive health reform legislation during in a State of the Union address in 1974, a program that was well to the left of what either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama ultimately proposed? That would be Richard Nixon.
Eisenhower and Reagan and Nixon--they were not the liberals of their day. They were the conservatives of their own time.
But the whole of American politics has shifted so far to the right in the last 50 years that what used to be thought of as conservative, what used to be thought of as a conservative position, is now considered to be off-the-charts lefty.
Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens pointed out this whole phenomenon of American politics shifting to the right when he told "The New York times" this--he said, quote, "Including myself, every judge who's been appointed to the court since Lewis Powell in 1971 has been more conservative than his or her predecessor, except maybe Justice Ginsburg." That was the one exception he could come up with.
Over the past half a century, the center in American politics has gone further and further and further to the right. Halfway through Barack Obama's first term, his State of the Union address last night is being pretty universally hailed as centrist, as not too liberal, not too conservative, but right down the middle of American politics.
And that is something that Americans like to hear. The instant reaction polls to President Obama's speech last night were almost comically positive. CBS reported that 92 percent of the people who watched the speech approved of Mr. Obama's proposals, 92; CNN reporting that 84 percent of people had a positive response.
Those sorts of numbers do not happen in politics. Those are crazy numbers.
Historically, the process of a Democrat trying to find the center in politics has seen Democrats chasing the center as it moves to the right. The thing that's different about the left and the right in this country is that there isn't an equal and opposite force on the left that's anything like the conservative movement on the right. The conservative movement exists outside the Republican Party, and it serves to constantly pull the Republican Party further to the right.
So, when you have a president like Bill Clinton who found popular centrist decisions by splitting the difference between where the Republicans were and where the Republican--where the Democrats were and where the Republicans were, and the Republicans kept moving further to the right because they're being pulled there by the conservative movement, when you have a president who triangulates like that, what you end up with is a president who as a Democrat moves the country further to the right, because he shifts to the right every time he takes another centrist position.
Is President Obama doing the same thing?
The dynamics on the right are the same as they've ever been. The right word drift of Republican politics from Eisenhower to Nixon to Ford to Reagan to Bush, Sr. to Bush, Jr., it's less of a steady drift now than a fast rightward jerking motion. The rightward movement in Republican politics is going faster, I think, than it ever has before.
For example, George W. Bush, he ran for president on a platform of comprehensive immigration reform. He ran for president saying that he has supported the assault weapons ban. But by the time he was president, supporting the assault weapons ban was no longer all that tenable, so he let that ban expire. He did try for immigration reform, and then he abandoned it.
Then his entire party ran against him on it by the time they needed a new presidential nominee. It was a quick turnaround.
You know, it was only 2008 when John McCain and Sarah Palin ran for office by saying they supported a cap-and-trade energy program. Remember that? Cap-and-trade used to be their idea, used to be a Republican idea.
The individual mandate for health reform--that used to be a Republican idea.
The DREAM Act on immigration--that was sponsored by John McCain once upon a time. But by the time Democrats brought it up for a vote, John McCain had turned against his own idea. Why? Because Republican politics are jerking so fast to the right that Republicans are being forced to turn against their own policy positions when the new right wing position dictates it. They can't even keep up within their own careers.
On the right, the process that has dragged the political center to the point where Dwight Eisenhower would be denounced as a socialist now, Ronald Reagan wouldn't even pass a Republican purity test, he'd be the guy they excluded from the debates for being a wingnut, that process is still very much in tact. On the right, things are working sort of the way they always have, if not faster.
But heading into last night's State of the Union address, the question was: would President Obama continue to change Republicans to the right? There are two ways to approach this, right? There are two ways to claim the 92 percent instant approval rating of sounding like the man in the center.
One way is the Clintonian way--to let your policies just drift right because the Republicans drifted right, too.
But there's another way. A way we heard about last night. It is to claim the center, to claim the political spoils you get for sounding like you're in the center, that 92 percent CBS rating, right, but to put the center back vaguely somewhere where center actually is.