Cain Predecessor Willkie Indicates Rough Road Ahead

Published November 2, 2011

Policies are what affect our well-being, but it’s politicians and politics that tend to determine them. And sometimes the campaign process makes all the difference.

Consider this scenario: During midterm elections, voters deliver a stinging rebuke to a Democrat president whose plans to rescue a country from a worst-in-two-generations downturn have failed. This leads to record Republican pickups in the House of Representatives. As an economy that once appeared to be on the mend enters a double-dip, a never-before-elected Republican businessman who first rose to prominence with harsh criticism of efforts to increase government control over a vital sector of the economy emerges as a strong debater and thus goes from fringe candidate to legitimate contender for the nomination.

This scenario, of course, describes the United States today–the administration of President Barack Obama and the now-quite-credible campaign of Herman Cain for the Republican nomination. But it’s just as accurate a description (right down to the “double dip”) of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration in the run-up to the 1940 elections and the insurgent candidacy of Wendell Willkie. These parallels provide useful lessons for those concerned about the direction of public policy today.

Like Cain, who first entered the national spotlight with his criticisms of President Bill Clinton’s big-government health care proposal, Willkie, a lawyer and utility executive, first rose to prominence attacking FDR’s big-government Tennessee Valley Authority. Like Cain, Willkie was a good debater, creaming Solicitor General Robert H. Jackson (considered a potential Democratic candidate had Roosevelt not sought a third term) in a national radio debate.

Also like Cain, Willkie proved himself acceptable to various factions within the Republican Party. He was a self-described liberal at a time when the GOP had a fair number of them, but he also pleased more conservative Republicans with his criticisms of the New Deal. Although Willkie ended his career calling for outright world government, as a candidate he mouthed “America-first” platitudes that kept the GOP’s isolationist wing satisfied. Cain, similarly, is a self-described Tea Party candidate whose business success, intelligence, and engagement in the details of public policy make him acceptable to many others within the GOP.

Obviously 2012 is different from 1940. Cain will have to survive a series of primaries, whereas Willkie won the nomination on the floor of a national convention. Cain’s Tea Party policies put him firmly in the small-government camp; Willkie really didn’t have a problem with big government. Still, the parallels between the two indicate some cautions for Cain supporters.

First, businesspeople-turned-candidates rarely do that well. Although Roosevelt seemed vulnerable going into the 1940 election, he won 55 percent of the vote and all but a few small states. Each election cycle, it seems, many successful businesspeople (such as Meg Whitman) find that even enormous success in business doesn’t lead to victory on election day.

Second, the qualities that win primaries can sometimes doom a candidate in the general election. Willkie, a liberal and internationalist, made pro-conservative and pro-isolationist comments to win the nomination and then tried (unsuccessfully) to tack leftwards in the general election. This alienated many voters and handed the election to Roosevelt. Cain’s own tendency toward unrealistic promises–a tax plan he says will balance the budget right away and cut taxes for most people–may help him win the Republican nomination but has already drawn criticism from political and policy leaders within the conservative movement. As with Willkie, scrutiny of Cain’s policy positions will only intensify between now and the election.

Finally, things can change pretty quickly. Although World War II in Europe was more than a year old on Election Day 1940, the true enormity of German and Japanese aggression became increasingly clear over the course of the campaign. Active support for the allies, which Roosevelt pursued and Willkie (against his own instincts) often criticized, became increasingly acceptable to the public between the 1940 conventions and Election Day the same year. Thus a candidate with no previous foreign policy experience–which may have seemed acceptable at the convention–proved a liability in the general election.

This isn’t to say that Cain’s lack of foreign policy experience is a huge problem–Obama had only slightly more when he took office–but instead a reminder that things can change dramatically.

Herman Cain has a real shot at the Republican nomination and has proven himself an able candidate. But the example of Wendell Willkie is a reminder of just how tough it is for a non-politician to make it all the way to the White House–and of how damaging policy inconsistency can be.

Eli Lehrer ([email protected]) is vice president of Washington, DC operations for The Heartland Institute and national director of its Center on Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate.