So, it appears that the president has decided to channel the candidacy of Walter Mondale from 1984. Here’s President Obama, on Monday:
So this is how we can reduce spending: by scouring the budget for every dime of waste and inefficiency, by reforming government spending, and by making modest adjustments to Medicare and Medicaid. But all these reductions in spending, by themselves, will not solve our fiscal problems. We can’t just cut our way out of this hole. It’s going to take a balanced approach. If we’re going to make spending cuts -- many of which we wouldn’t make if we weren’t facing such large budget deficits -- then it’s only right that we ask everyone to pay their fair share…
And that’s why this plan eliminates tax loopholes that primarily go to the wealthiest taxpayers and biggest corporations –- tax breaks that small businesses and middle-class families don’t get. And if tax reform doesn't get done, this plan asks the wealthiest Americans to go back to paying the same rates that they paid during the 1990s, before the Bush tax cuts.
Here’s Walter Mondale, more than a quarter century ago:
Whoever is inaugurated in January, the American people will have to pay Mr. Reagan's bills. The budget will be squeezed. Taxes will go up. And anyone who says they won't is not telling the truth to the American people.
I mean business. By the end of my first term, I will reduce the Reagan budget deficit by two-thirds.
Let's tell the truth. It must be done, it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.
There's another difference. When he raises taxes, it won't be done fairly. He will sock it to average-income families again, and leave his rich friends alone. And I won't stand for it. And neither will you and neither will the American people.
To the corporations and freeloaders who play the loopholes or pay no taxes, my message is: Your free ride is over.
In both cases, we see the same basic argument: increase taxes to lower the deficit and engage in more social welfare spending. Mondale campaigned in 1984 as an unabashed Great Society liberal, looking to rally the old groups of the Roosevelt/Truman/Kennedy/Johnson coalition – working class whites, union workers, middle class Catholics, and so on.
Will a similar strategy work for Obama?
To start, it never worked for Mondale. Not only was the former vice president road kill on Ronald Reagan’s triumphal march to reelection, he got shellacked among the core New Deal groups. Reagan won 60 percent of those born before 1924 (and thus experienced the Great Depression first hand), 70 percent of Southern whites, 58 percent of working class whites, 51 percent of Catholics, and even 47 percent of union workers. In other words, Mondale’s old time liberal message of higher taxes and more social welfare spending did not work on any level in 1984.
So why should we expect it to work in 2012? If anything, voters are more skeptical than ever about the government’s ability to get things right, as this recent release from the Gallup poll demonstrates:
Liberals do not fully appreciate the implications of this widespread skepticism about the government.
Obviously, this hurts both political parties, but the political ideology that suffers most is liberalism, as it’s the one with faith in the power of government to do big, grand things. That’s a faith that the mass public no longer shares. Republicans in Congress are harmed by this widespread skepticism, but it is actually in keeping with the small government philosophy of modern conservatism.
Unabashed, big government liberalism hasn’t been a clean political winner on the national level since 1964. The three Democrats who have won presidential victories since then – Carter, Clinton, and Obama – all ran away from it in one form or another. It sure didn’t work for Mondale in 1984, so I don’t see why it will work for Obama in 2012.
Obvious follow-up: Why is Obama doing this?
I think the answer is a mixed cocktail: two parts delusion and one part strategy.