Editorial: From the GOP: Why not a little more Winant, a little less Landon?
The Republican leader had staked his career on undoing the Democratic president’s signature social reform, so the language he used to draw the support of the American public was understandably strong:
“This is the largest tax bill in history.”
The reform “is unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted and wastefully financed.”
It is a “cruel hoax,” a “folly” of “bungling and waste,” compared poorly to the “much less expensive” and “practical measures” favored by the Republicans.
“We must repeal. The Republican Party is pledged to do this.”
Sen. Ted Cruz? House Speaker John Boehner? Mitch McConnell? Mitt Romney? Frank Guinta?
In fact, the speaker was Alf Landon, the 1936 Republican candidate for president. He was railing not against Obamacare but about Social Security, recently signed into law by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
It’s easy to think the dead-enders who want to repeal, defund, delay, unravel the Affordable Care Act at all costs are a 21st-century strain of Republican, pushing a negative, fear-driven agenda with nary a positive alternative to their name. In fact, most social safety-net programs of the modern era arrived amid significant political resistance. The 1936 episode, in which opposition to Landon was led by a former Republican governor from New Hampshire, provides numerous lessons for today’s paralyzed political class.
Today, Social Security is universally known and understood, well-liked and, for many Americans, essential. It has kept generations of seniors from poverty and provided a base level of financial security, regardless of the ups and downs of the economy, for more than 75 years.
But, at first, there was deep suspicion about the whole enterprise. Skeptics worried the government would collect Americans’ money but not pay it back. They predicted Social Security hiring would be rife with political patronage. And, indeed, there were significant startup hiccups, as Social Security tried to figure out how best to sign up workers and employers alike.
There were no “death panels,” but there was, for instance, a real worry that Social Security would issue metal dog tags with account number identification or force citizens to put their thumbprints on their Social Security cards – two real proposals that were rejected early but lived on in the rhetoric of opponents.
The first chairman of FDR’s Social Security Board was John Winant, the former three-term governor of New Hampshire and, later, U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Winant was a Republican, but he liked Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. When Landon made repeal of Social Security the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, Winant quit his nonpartisan job to campaign full time against Landon and in favor of Social Security.
“Having seen some of the cruelties of the Depression, I have wanted to help with others in lessening the hardships, the suffering, and the humiliations forced upon American citizens because of our previous failure as a nation to provide effective social machinery for meeting the problems of dependency and unemployment. The Social Security Act is America’s answer to this great human need,” he said.
Among the GOP campaign tactics: payroll messages to the workers of sympathetic businesses, designed to look like government notices. They implied that workers would suffer a 1 percent “pay reduction” if FDR were re-elected.
Winant delivered an angry rebuttal via radio: “Any political message in a worker’s pay envelope is coercion. It is a new form of the old threat to shut down the mill if the employer’s candidate isn’t elected. We’re supposed to be beyond that in this country.”
The rest, of course, is well known. With Winant’s help, Social Security survived. Early glitches were smoothed out. For many Americans, life improved. Social Security became popular. Many of its goals were the same as those of the Affordable Care Act: financial security, insurance against calamities, an easing of the real differences between the haves and have-nots.
Today’s repeal zealots are convinced they’re on the right side of history. In fact, it’s Winant, not Landon, they should emulate.