November 22, 2014

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For whom should he care?

Feb. 16, 2012

By Edwin Cooney 

 

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t particularly surprised last week when I learned that the leading GOP presidential contender, Willard (Mitt) Romney has decided that he cares about neither the poor nor the rich since the rich can take care of themselves and the poor have a “safety net” under them. As for you in the middle class, the socio/political domain of workers who earn between $50,000 and $250,000, the handsome, articulate former Massachusetts governor has finally discovered you.

Up until now, you, the middle class, have been the strategic domain of President Obama, who has kept his pledge not to increase taxes on you. Of course, the president’s opponents love to point out the obligations that “Obama Care” puts on everyone (especially the middle class), which they insist amounts to a tax increase. It is a reasonable argument when you’re being strictly political rather than responsibly objective. After all, a tax increase is more money taken for income taxes under the status quo, where healthcare is an additional service being offered which extends the status quo. Whatever position you take, the question remains: should the president especially care about classes of Americans?

Harry Truman, in his usual straightforward way of looking at a president’s responsibilities, asserted: “the rich have the luxury of being able to pay lobbyists to come down to Washington to lobby Congress to meet their demands. There’s nothing wrong with them. As for the rest of America, the only lobbyist they have is the President of the United States. That’s his job — to look out for the interests of the average person.”

The idea that the president should particularly care about anyone’s welfare is a relatively recent expectation.

In the early years of our republic, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison held the view that a president should be politically “disinterested” in the outcome of public affairs as they directly affect people’s lives. Recent scholars have suggested that one of the reasons Thomas Jefferson (our third president) fell out with Aaron Burr (our third vice president) was because Burr was more interested in serving people’s needs than he was in being the expected “disinterested” public servant (certainly his duel with Alexander Hamilton didn’t help, but it wasn’t the source of Jefferson’s unhappiness with Aaron Burr). Presidential policies generally had to do with the broad interests of the young United States: our relations with Britain and France (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison from 1794 through 1815), Indian affairs (James Monroe through Grover Cleveland from 1819 until 1887), and the Civil War (Abraham Lincoln through Rutherford B. Hayes from 1861 through 1877). As late as the 1920s, Calvin Coolidge vetoed the McNary- Haugen Farm Relief Act designed to provide badly needed financial assistance particularly to western farmers who’d been plagued for several years by floods, droughts and soil erosion. Coolidge and many other Republicans saw direct assistance to farmers as “class legislation.” For the most part, government wasn’t seen as a legitimate tool on behalf of everyday working people until the New Deal. Thus, only since Franklin D. Roosevelt has there been a debate about the legitimate role government should play in people’s lives.

Hence, the question: what should a perspective president care about?

During the course of one of his more folksy 1930s fireside chats, FDR put it this way:

“I like to think of our country as one home in which the interests of each member are bound up with the happiness of us all. We ought to know, by now, that the welfare of your family or mine cannot be bought at the sacrifice of our neighbor’s family; that our well-being depends, in the long run, on the well-being of our neighbors.”

FDR’s appeal brought about a solid political coalition of some farmers, laborers, students, Southern conservatives, Northern and Western liberals, and intellectuals that established moderate forward-looking government from the 1930s through the 1960s. Even Richard Nixon insisted that if a presidential candidate is to be successful, he must appeal to conservatives during the primaries but move to the left to accommodate the center during the general election (the opposite extreme to center in the Democratic party).

Hence, after months of appealing to the right, Gov. Romney appears ready now to keel sharply to the center.

Will the GOP’s right wing allow him to do that? Will they interpret his move leftward as an effort to protect conservatism against the slings and arrows of the left until he can start practicing conservatism in the White House? Or will they see his move as a betrayal of conservative dogma to which all of the GOP candidates have paid such intense homage during this campaign?

Is it the poor, the rich or the middle class to whom any successful presidential candidate must appeal? I say it’s the middle class. However, of the three class categories, the middle class is the most fickle and therefore the most dangerous. Its demands, resentments, and needs are so intertwined — yet contradictory — that they’re more easily offended than pleased. And when offended, they’re deadly!

Most of all, they possess more votes!

 

Edwin Cooney is a national political and historical columnist.

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