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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mitt Romney, the Wendell Willkie of 2012

Back to the future with Mitt Romney, the Wendell Willkie​ of our day. Consider the eerie parallels.

In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt ran for a third term, smashing the two-term tradition started by George Washington. Facing a backlash from voters for what appeared to many Americans as a power grab, Roosevelt also looked weak as the economy took another big nosedive in the late '30s, and as Americans became more concerned over Hitler's War in Europe and more sympathetic to Britain.

Republicans sensed victory. Senators Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg, and New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey were the leading contenders. But they were isolationists and had no real idea how to pull the economy out of its tailspin. Wall Street industrialist Wendell Willkie would get the nomination, promising that his business experience would lead the nation back to prosperity.

Willkie was a delegate to the 1932 Democrat National Convention, and had supported Roosevelt. He continued to be a a supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal programs. But when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) pushed his Commonwealth and Southern Corporation out of the utility business in the TVA area, Willkie became a critic, denouncing government-owned companies that competed with private companies.

Roosevelt couldn't have picked a better opponent. Willkie represented everything the majority of Americans had come to mistrust—the Wall Street fat cat turned flip-flopping politician. Roosevelt and henchmen such as Harold Ickes denounced greedy "plutocrats" of Wall Street and began a campaign we now call "class warfare," linking Willklie to the privileged class, and denouncing the "fascism" of private business leaders who, the administration and its media allies charged, wanted to lord it over the common man.

Willkie responded with a campaign criticizing corruption in the Roosevelt programs, promising not to dismantle the New Deal, but to make it run more efficiently. He would keep the regulatory and welfare programs of the New Deal, but take the Roosevelt cronies out. He offered no specifics.

Roosevelt, mired in failed economic policies and on the brink of a world at war that many Americans wanted to avoid, still triumphed over Willkie, winning 38 states and an electoral college landslide of 449 to 82.

During the war, Willkie was a fervent ally of Roosevelt, and the President hired him as his personal representative to sell the internationalist story to all corners of the world. Willkie published a book titled One World.

In modern terms, Willkie was a RINO (Republican in Name Only). He failed to present voters with a choice, but instead offered a vaguely critical echo. Just like Mitt Romney.

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