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Can Bush out-Hoover Hoover?

by Robert S. McElvaine on Oct 18, 2004

Robert S. McElvaine

A young woman interviewed after the first presidential debate told the BBC that she was voting for Bush despite the fact that she thought he had “showed himself to be a complete idiot. “Why?” the perplexed reporter inquired. “Because Kerry is inconsistent,” the American responded. “At least Bush is consistent.”

The reelection campaign of George W. Bush has placed almost all its chips on a bet that “consistency” will prove to be this year’s trump card. It hopes that a majority of voters will value consistency above even wisdom or common sense.

The whole Bush campaign seems to be centered on convincing American voters that Democratic nominee John F. Kerry is inconsistent: a “flip-flopper,” the sender of “mixed messages.” Bush strategists may yet succeed with this gamble, but they should beware of a well-worn card in the Democrats’ hand. It’s the Herbert Hoover Card.

Democrats have played that card in many presidential elections since 1932 by reminding voters that the economy plunged into the Great Depression during that Republican president’s administration. Never before, however, has the linking of an incumbent Republican president with Hoover been as appropriate as it is this year. And the reasons go far beyond the one we keep hearing about, that George W. Bush is the first president since Hoover under whom there has been a net loss of American jobs.

The Kerry campaign’s best bet to win the highest stakes presidential election since Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 is to call the Republicans’ bluff by playing not one, but a pair of Hoover cards: “consistency” and Bush’s economic record.

The 1932 election, like this year’s, pitted an incumbent Republican who was a man of steadfast principles from which he would not deviate against a pragmatic Democratic challenger. Contemporary critics described Roosevelt in terms very similar to those the Bush campaign is using to label Kerry, such as “two-sided” and “volatile.”

Bush’s principles are certainly not those of Hoover, who, to cite but two among several major differences, was committed to balancing the budget and was uninterested in using military force to try to reshape the world in the image of the United States. Nor, the deep recession of 2001-2003 notwithstanding, are the critical issues today what they were in 1932.

Yet the basic question facing the electorate is the same in 2004 as it was 72 years ago: Should we continue on a course charted by an ideologue who is unaffected by evidence that his course is wrong, or should we switch to a leader who is willing to let evidence guide his decisions?

The most important difference between President Bush and Senator Kerry is similar to the crucial distinction between Hoover and Roosevelt. Bush, like Hoover, is committed to a worldview he is sure is correct. To such a mind, facts do not matter. If the evidence does not support what he “knows” is true, it is to be ignored. When asked, as he was again in the second presidential debate, to identify a mistake he has made, Bush cannot do it. The reason is that Bush, like Hoover, begins with certainty and so cannot conceive of being wrong.

FDR famously said in 1932, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.” Hoover’s approach, on the other hand, was to take a method that he “knew” to be correct and try it. If it failed, he would deny its failure and try it again. And again and again. Hoover, for instance, “knew” that a balanced budget was necessary to restore confidence, so he cut spending when the stimulus of federal spending was desperately needed. Bush takes the same approach.

The current president’s father was criticized for not having what he termed “the vision thing.” The son’s problem is just the opposite. He has such a Vision that it blinds his vision. People such as Hoover and the younger Bush cannot see the trees for the forest. Their unwavering adherence to their ideal of the ways things ought to be prevents them from seeing the way things are.

Emerson’s famous maxim about consistency is often repeated without its key term. The sage of Concord wrote not that consistency itself is foolish, but that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen . . . .”

Staying the course is fine when you’re on the right course. Then positive terms are used to describe a leader’s unchangeable character: consistent, tenacious, unshakable, steadfast. But when someone insists on maintaining policies that fail, the terms used to portray his inflexible nature become negative: stubborn, obstinate, pigheaded. Such a person matches Emerson’s characterization of a little statesman.

Our strategy is succeeding in Iraq, President Bush keeps repeating. That sounds like Hoover repeating, as the Depression deepened, that prosperity was just around the corner. Indeed, Bush is saying almost the same thing about prosperity as well.

Archie Bunker used to sing, “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.” If the Kerry campaign can get voters to see that we now have a man like Herbert Hoover again, the Republicans’ bet on consistency will lose them the pot in the biggest electoral game since Hoover’s defeat.

Robert S. McElvaine, a writer for History News Service, is a professor of history at Millsaps College and the author of "The Great Depression."