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To Howard Dean: It is 2009, not 1965

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Howard Dean. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

The year is 1964, the high watermark of Liberalism. Lyndon Johnson takes 61.1 percent of the popular vote in his election contest against Barry Goldwater, an electoral feat that was bigger than Franklin Roosevelt’s 60.8 percent in 1936 and one that has not been surpassed in the years since. The Democratic tsunami sweeps down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where Democrats would out-number Republicans two to one in the 89th Congress, and in the Senate they take 68 seats – the biggest supermajority held by any party to this day. The era of Liberalism had entered its Golden Age.

Unified by the inspiring memory of John Kennedy, Democrats were able to enact health-care legislation that even Franklin Roosevelt, the father of modern Liberalism did not have the stomach to attempt as part of his New Deal. It would be Lyndon Johnson, not Harry Truman, not FDR, and not his counsin, Theodore Roosevelt (running as the Progressive Party candidate in 1912) who would enact the single biggest health-care legislation in US history, offering single-payer, comprehensive health-care benefits to seniors over the age of 65 (Medicare) and an option for states to finance the health-care of the indigent (Medicaid) in the Social Security Act of 1965.

We remember the New Deal, and perhaps the Fair Deal, but it is the Great Society that is the apotheosis of 20th century Liberalism. And if 1965 is Liberalism’s high water-mark, then those who would stymie health-care reform today because of the lack of a robust (or indeed, any) public option have gravely gotten their decades mixed up.

There was a time when Liberals did not have to call themselves “Progressives.” That was four decades ago, when Lyndon Johnson attacked Barry Goldwater for wanting to roll back social security and openly campaigned for a further expansion of the welfare state. Times have changed. Today’s Progressives must cagily wrap their Liberal agenda with talk of choice, competition, and bending cost curves. And if the era of Liberalism as FDR and Johnson knew it is over, The Age of Reagan lingers on in the Tea Party Movement. Despite his aspiration to build an even Greater Society than Johnson, Barack Obama’s electoral mandate is 18 percent short of what Johnson possessed in 1965; the Democratic majority is the House is much smaller; and, despite the new cloture rules post-1975 in the Senate which has reduced the fraction of votes needed to end debate from 2/3 to 3/5, Joe Lieberman et al remind us every day that the Senate is anything but filibuster-proof.

To Governor Dean and his compatriots, it is 2009, not 1965.

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