'Not in the history of mankind'



Any Republican discomfited by the election of Michael Steele as national party chairman, and fearful that the first black GOP leader might not be sufficiently conservative, can surely rest easy. In an interview yesterday on CNN, Steele no doubt soothed any jittery intraparty nerves by demonstrating that he is fully capable of denying factual reality and talking like Herbert Hoover.

During a discussion on how the GOP might help end the deepening recession, Steele said something that prompted me to roll backward on the TiVo, just to make sure I had heard him correctly. Turns out, I had. Not long after, I checked the transcript. The remarks were right there, in print. Steele said:

"The government doesn't create jobs. Let's get this notion out of our heads that the government creates jobs. Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job."

Not in the history of mankind...There's no better way for a new Republican leader to comfort the party rank and file, and win applause from Fox News and the conservative think tanks, than to insist - in defiance of the empirical record - that FDR's New Deal totally failed to lift America out of the Great Depression. Such is the broader context for Steele's fact-challenged assertion.

So here's where things stand today: The good news is that, at long last, we're no longer refighting the 1960s. The bad news is that now we're apparently stuck refighting the 1930s.

But with respect to the history of the New Deal, Steele was a tad off in his math...by roughly 15 million jobs.

Denying the truth of that statistic is akin to believing that the earth is flat. The historical record tells us that FDR's Works Progress Administration put eight million people to work. (Steele has no doubt driven on bridges and flown from airports that were built by WPA workers.) The Civilian Conservation Corps put 2.75 million people to work; in a 1936 Gallup nationwide poll, 67 percent of Republicans voiced their support for the program. 

In addition, the Civil Works Administration put four million people to work in just four months - and was so successful at its task that one politician wrote FDR to say, "This civil works program is one of the soundest, most constructive policies of your administration, and I cannot urge too strongly its continuance." That was Alf Landon, the Republican governor of Kansas, who would run against FDR in 1936, and lose in a landslide.

Those stats don't even include the indirect benefits offered by the National Youth Administration, which provided part-time jobs to two million high school and college students who needed financial help in order to finish their education. And there was also the Public Works Administration, which created hundreds of thousands of jobs; even though the PWA was assailed as inefficient, its workers built (among many other things) 70 percent of all new school buildings between 1933 and 1939, helped build the Lincoln Tunnel, and helped complete Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.

Obviously, the New Deal was far from perfect, and America didn't fully emerge from the Depression until World War II (when, lest we forget, government defense contracts created millions of wartime jobs). But even prewar, the official jobless rate - which stood at 25 percent when FDR took office - was down to around 14 percent by the end of the '30s. (By the way, the real jobless rate was actually lower, because the official rate excluded the public sector.) And amidst all these governmental steps to create jobs and ameliorate the severity of the Depression, the Republicans of that era stood on the sidelines, carping.

(On the carping front, here's an example that captures the spirit of the '30s GOP, the party of No in action. In 1935, as FDR and the Democrats readied the historic bill establishing Social Security, the opposition scoffed at the notion that old people and survivors deserved any kind of safety net. To wit, New Jersey GOP Senator A. Harry Moore: "It would take all the romance out of life. We might as well take a child from the nursery, give him a nurse, and protect him from every experience that life affords.")

To be charitable, perhaps Michael Steele yesterday was trying to argue that no government in the history of mankind has ever created permanent jobs with permanent benefits and guaranteed pensions. But even that assertion would miss the point of the New Deal. Anyone who reads the history quickly discovers that FDR's intended mission was to save capitalism, to improve the climate for private-sector job creation by strengthening the system with new regulatory checks and balances. Hence the decision to rebuild confidence in the banks by protecting people's deposits via the new FDIC program. Hence the decision to rebuild confidence in Wall Street by introducing the concept of government oversight via the new Securities and Exchange Commission.
Indeed, the Dow Jones average rose by roughly 400 percent between 1933 and 1937. And one Nobel Prize winner has written: "Only with the New Deal's rehabilitation of the financial system in 1933-35 did the economy begin its slow emergence from the Great depression." That would be Ben Bernake, the Federal Reserve chairman appointed by George W. Bush.

It's not hard to divine the intent behind Steele's hyperbolic denial of the historical record. If Republicans can somehow succeed in rewriting the past, by denying the imperfect but tangible benefits of bold government action, they can more easily make the case for standing pat today.

This is a somewhat risky proposition, however. Because they did nothing during the New Deal era, at a time when the public demanded bold government action, they wound up in extended exile - locked out of the White House for 28 of the 36 years between 1933 and 1969. If the current generation of Republicans continues to misjudge the mood today, it risks the same political fate.