If the electorate had not ousted the Republicans, they would not have been forced to take political responsibility for violating the “do no harm” principle. There is a lot of evidence in Hoover’s many reflections about his administration and the election of 1932 that he recognized how and why he was being sacrificed, even though Hoover thought it horribly unfair. No matter. The ship of state foundered when Republicans were in power. Thus, fairly or unfairly, Republicans bore responsibility for the crisis and Hoover was out.

The election of 1968 is the other stunning example of the penalty attached to breaking the “do no harm” rule. That year Republicans eked out a much smaller victory against the entrenched Democrats. There were a lot of issues at play in 1968 but the central one was foreign policy in Southeast Asia, and Richard Nixon was the narrow winner over Hubert Humphrey.

Nixon believed that the 1960s were the era of the big promise. In eight years of rule by John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Democrats had pledged that the nation could end poverty, eliminate ancient racial attitudes, destroy totalitarian evil, and correct the abuses of capitalism.

Instead the United States had riot, discord, and a vicious war in Vietnam. Nixon detested the Democratic policy makers of the 1960s, and effectively if not very subtlety conveyed his contempt to the voters. The important matter for the electorate was to repudiate the arrogance of liberal politicians whose plans had gone off course in far-off Vietnam.

Did Nixon reason unfairly? Of course he did, but no one could deny that the Democrats had power when matters became unhinged. We can’t tell if the Republicans would have governed with more restraint than the Democrats in the 1960s, and Nixon’s management of the war from 1969 to 1973 was hardly more humane than Johnson’s from 1965 to 1968.

But in the 1960s President Johnson and the men around him had taken the train off the rails. There is some indication that Johnson realized this, although he did not blame himself. Rather, he blamed his national security advisors, whom he called, with a mixture of awe and distaste, “the Harvards.” In any event, Johnson knew enough to step down from a run in 1968.

The Nixon victory in 1968 showed that the political system worked, despite all that would come later during the Nixon administration. If the Democrats had escaped electoral punishment despite the Vietnam War in 1968, they too would have avoided taking political responsibility for a national crisis. In repudiating the Democrats, the electorate displayed wisdom. And, yes, we don’t know that Nixon did better than Humphrey would have. I bet that many readers of Origins probably did not vote in 1968. I did and voted for Humphrey. I was wrong. The political system was smarter than I was.

1932 = 1968 ? 1948

A counter example might be useful here. What happens if the system does not work—if it fails to punish those in power? In 1948 Democrat Harry Truman surprised the United States when he was elected president. As Franklin Roosevelt’s third Vice President, Truman was an unknown who ascended to the presidency when Roosevelt died in 1945. He then accidentally presided over the end of World War II, and while the nation celebrated victory in August, 1945, it settled quickly into an anxious peace. The beginnings of the Cold War, the fear of nuclear weapons, and events happening in places like Greece left the country profoundly uneasy.

In 1948 Truman was weak and unpopular, and the Democrats had been in power for sixteen years. The people thought he was over his head in the job and did not trust him. Yet Truman managed a squeaky success over New York Republican Governor, Thomas Dewey.

The close call was the best Truman could do. From 1949 to 1953, his approval ratings went steadily down hill, and his administration was involved in a series of scandals and ruled ineffectively at home. More important, after brief victories in a confined conflict in Korea, Truman made a reckless and catastrophic decision to unify that nation under American influence. He was repeatedly warned that he would bring China into a larger war, which he did. By November of 1952, the United States was engaged in a humiliating struggle in Asia that was the chief occasion for the election of Dwight Eisenhower.

We don’t know that Dewey and the Republicans would have done better from 1948 to 1953 than the Truman administration actually did. But the Republicans hardly could have done worse. Had Dewey won, a man many liberals believed to have greater ability than Eisenhower would have been in charge in the 1950s. Had the Korean War occurred, it might have been more readily contained by someone like Dewey—and Dewey, more clearly, would have contained Joe McCarthy, who arose during the fag-end of the Truman presidency and who feasted on Democratic weaknesses.

Truman was shamed out of office in 1952. Many people had “had enough” of the Democrats in 1948, and the break-down of the “Do no harm” rule did not serve the nation well. Truman should have been dismissed in 1948.

2008?

The good news is that these lessons indicate what should happen in November of 2008. We don’t know that the team of Gore and Lieberman would have pursued less unfortunate policies than the Bush-Cheney Republicans. We don’t have much evidence the Republicans conducted themselves with greater irresponsibility than the Democrats would have.

For all the current president’s missteps, does anyone think that Bush deliberately tried to get the United States into an unwinnable war in Iraq and to upend the American economy? Can we be sure that Democrats would have navigated the shoals of foreign and domestic policy to better outcomes than exist today?

Likewise, we have no real way of knowing whether Obama will do better than McCain in sorting out the problems one or the other will inherit. (I personally am convinced that Republicans are probably more able to bring the fighting in the Middle East to some kind of conclusion than the Democrats. They are untried, while the Republicans have the edge of having experienced hands and a set of policies in place.)

No matter. The ship of state is in a fix. The logic of presidential politics is that the party in power pays. They had the deck. If they get it wrong on their watch, they have to go. Unless the Republicans are held accountable now, they are in for life, or we are in for even bigger trouble in the next four years.

Six months ago the question of whether Obama or Clinton was the superior choice struck me as beside the point. To be sure, there are differences in their personalities and policies, but the imperative then was: choose any Democrat. What is the best reason for voting for Obama? He is not a Republican; he bears no political responsibility for our national crisis.

Who knows if he will perform more creditably? Indeed, Obama is an empty vessel into which the American people can be expected to pour their inexhaustible supply of hope—in just the same way that they did in 1932 and at other moments when they wisely applied the “do no harm” principle.