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2010 Election Comparisons: 1934 vs. 1994

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Forget the 1994 Elections. Look Way Back to 1934 for the Best Parallels to 2010

We've all heard the electoral comparisons to 1994, when the Republicans won 54 Democratic seats and took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, while also capturing the U.S. Senate. And while we may not know the results of the 2010 elections -- who will win, how many seats will change hands, which party will be control the House and Senate -- we do know the magnitude of the challenges facing the nation. However, today's persistent unemployment, momentous mortgage crisis, and ballooning trade deficit really recall memories of 1934, not 1994.

The Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress in 1929, when the stock market crashed. Their inept response to the downward-spiraling economy opened the floodgates to the Great Depression, and to the Democrats, who swept them from power by 1932. Newly elected Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, was ready to try a new approach. He would use, not restrain, the powers of the federal government to help the millions of Americans that were suffering from the economic catastrophe.

Yet, despite passing sweeping legislation, the Democrats feared big losses in 1934. Unemployment approached 22 percent. The stock market was down 75 percent from its peak. Half the nation's banks had closed. And 500,000 homes had been foreclosed.

Through most of 1934, Roosevelt, like Obama through most of this year, seemed lost. Roosevelt, "suddenly silent and irresolute, seemed to have lost his touch... The administration appeared to lack coherence in both policy and in strategy," wrote historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The president faced "the organized business community," which was determined to halt his agenda, and "the tumult of mass opinion, so ardently stirred by the radicals and demagogues."

Like today's Republicans, the Hoover Republicans approached the 1934 midterm elections calling for the very policies that allowed economic collapse: tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, slashed spending and a balanced budget. Republicans called Roosevelt a socialist, communist and fascist. They compared him to Hitler, Lenin and Stalin.

Sound familiar?

Yet in 1934, the Democrats scored the nation's biggest midterm election victory ever, adding significantly to their already huge majorities in the House and Senate.

So let's look at some of the comparisons. Upon taking office in 1933, Roosevelt launched the New Deal and its expansive programs. Many of the programs enacted during his first two years in office still provide Americans with economic security, or led to other programs that have endured:

  • The Federal Emergency Relief Act, the first national relief program, laid the groundwork for Social Security and federal unemployment insurance.
  • The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Public Works Administration built libraries, bridges, highways, and public buildings that Americans still continue to use.
  • The National Industrial Recovery Act led to the minimum wage, maximum workday and anti-child-labor laws, as well as the guaranteed worker's rights to organize and collectively bargaining.
  • The Truth in Security Act required -- for the first time -- full disclosure information for investors, and led to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
  • The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) continues to protect depositors from losing their savings (up to250,000) if their bank folds.
  • The Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to all of America by 1952. Before rural electrification, only 11 percent of American farms had electricity in 1934 because electric companies charged them four times the rate paid by urban customers.

President Obama and the Democrats in Congress passed some of the most wide-ranging legislation in decades, including healthcare, financial reform and the new landmark Consumer Protection Agency. They passed an economic stimulus program that included tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans and extended unemployment insurance. And they bailed out -- and just may have saved -- the domestic auto industry.

The one obvious contrast between the 1934 midterm elections and present day is that Roosevelt shook off his lethargy; he and his fellow Democrats made the election a mandate on the New Deal. Roosevelt made it clear that the "forces of privilege and greed" had made and profited from the rules. He argued that it was time to change the rules and provide a safety net to protect the weak from the ravages of unbridled capitalism. He linked the recalcitrant rich - mostly businessmen and financiers - with their shameless Republican lackeys, who had little interest in fair play despite their bluster to the contrary. They even vigorously opposed Roosevelt's efforts to end child labor.

Ordinary Americans knew what Roosevelt had done, whose side he was one, and where he wanted to take them.

President Obama has worked to defend his own programs. However, most Democratic incumbents have shied away from their major achievements, such as healthcare reform and the stimulus. Today's Democrats face electoral challenges, but those challenges could have been mitigated by an enthusiastic defense of their successes and with an emphasis that much, much more needs to be done.

We can look back to history for guidance on the message and results for the 2010 election. But looking back only to 1994 is a striking misread of history, and leads back to 1929 thinking.

The truth is that the economy needs more, not less, New Deal-like programs. Tea Partiers and their Republican allies hearken back to the failed, destructive, policies of 1930. That's really what they mean by "taking their country back." The best way forward is to go back to the future -- not to 1994, but much further back to a time that more closely resembles today, back to 1934. That year, Americans knew fear wasn't their enemy, and didn't vote to turn back the clock.