In refreshing my memory for a recent column about the New Deal and the establishment of the Social Security system in 1935, I was struck by the facts about the previous presidential election, in 1932. That was the year Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat and governor of New York, won his first of four terms in a landslide over Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover. The Depression was on, people were starving, and yet Hoover did not want to involve the federal government in relief efforts. FDR won with more than 57 percent of the vote; he carried 42 of the 48 states. But the results of congressional elections that year are especially eye-popping.
Republicans lost 101 seats in the House, and 11 in the Senate switched from the GOP to Roosevelt’s party. For the first time in history, the Senate majority leader lost his re-election.
Those historic results are easily explained by Hoover’s unpopularity. Married to Republican ideology simply stated by his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge — “The business of America is business” being the most common reduction of the full quote — Hoover resisted calls to use the power of the federal government to give the country a lift from the economic crisis. He proved incapable of dealing with the Depression. He was so unpopular several senators from his own party didn’t support him, and he had difficulty campaigning because people threw stuff at him.
The Congress ended up with huge Democratic majorities: 313 seats in the House to the Republicans’ 117, and 58 to 37 in the Senate. Within a few years, the New Deal was underway, and the Social Security system was established to relieve unemployment, poverty and the lack of pensions for widows. The New Deal remains part of the Democratic DNA, and it would be wise if Democrats who hold or run for office these days remember that.
Given what happened in November 1932 — the country in crisis, a Republican president incapable of dealing with it, Republicans refusing to extend the relief that millions of Americans still needed — you have to consider the possibility that something similar might be brewing for November 2020. Look at how Trump has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis. Look at the unemployment that has resulted. Look at how Republican governors in southern states followed Trump’s terrible lead, and look how Republicans in the Senate are balking at further relief. They’re also attacking Social Security again. Given all that, they deserve what they get in November.