It was a historic tidal wave of rejection. Symbolized by, of all things, housewives boycotting supermarkets. And the active participation of seven future presidents of the United States.
The 1966 “off year” or congressional elections should also serve as a political warning to the Obama White House as it pursues its strategy of pumping trillions of taxpayer dollars into the economy.
Only two years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had swept to a landslide victory promising a “Great Society” and a “war on poverty” funded by a massive infusion of taxpayer dollars. Intoxicated Democrats looked to an unlimited future of high tax, big spending, big government. Billions (then a big sum) were gushing out of Washington for everything from poverty programs to education, health care, the environment, transportation, consumer protection, and the arts and humanities, just for starters. But by November of 1966, with a tab for billions in hand, taxes rising and inflation swamping their everyday lives, the American people were staggered at the unlimited costs of it all. Angered, they had caught on to the end game of tax-and-spend economics.
The rebellion began, logically enough, at a grocery store.
Inflation had been on the rise throughout the year. By the early part of October, Denver housewives had had enough. “We don’t like to feel we’re being taken to the cleaners,” said Mrs. Jay S. Threlkeld to the New York Times. Denver’s “Housewives for Lower Food Prices,” gaining 50,000 members almost overnight, was born. In Miami, a group of 20 housewives was threatening a house-to-house campaign for recruits to protest the rise in the price of milk. The idea took off, instantly garnering national media attention as supermarkets in Chicago, Portland, Detroit, and Phoenix came under scrutiny.
The Johnson administration, in an eerie foreshadowing of today’s attempts by the Obama administration to blame private businesses for bad decisions pushed on them by government, lashed out at supermarket chains. The government’s Bureau of Labor and Statistics was only too happy to add fuel to this sudden political bonfire by pointing a finger at the supposedly greedy grocery stores. Out tumbled the stats from LBJ’s crew. The price of hamburger was up over 2 cents a pound in the last year, it said. Milk had risen 3 cents a half gallon. Butter was up an astonishing 11 cents a pound. Large grade A eggs cost more than 12 cents a dozen than they had in 1965.
In short, said LBJ as he played the greed card, this is about those rich SOB’s running grocery stores. The greedy grocers.
A branch manager of a Red Owl Store, a small Midwest grocery chain, begged to differ, and didn’t mind saying so to a Times reporter. Greedy grocers, said one Louis Hughes, were not the problem. In fact, grocers were doing everything they could to keep prices down. No, Mr. Hughes said, “the high costs of union and Government” were the culprits.
For a moment there was division in the ranks of the boycotters. Some wanted to pursue the idea that LBJ was pushing, blaming the grocers themselves. But others began to catch on to the argument voiced by Red Owl’s Mr. Hughes. The state chairwoman of Arizona Housewives for Better Living spoke up, saying her group “doesn’t think the fault lies with the supermarkets, but rather stems from hidden taxes and food shortages.”
Suddenly, as if awakened from a philosophical coma, Republicans took note. The idea of connecting the massive billions in taxpayer dollars being spent by Washington directly to the rising price of groceries caught on.
In Memphis, Tennessee, the Republican congressional candidate entered a backyard political meeting pushing a cart of groceries, pointing out to his audience that as the bills for the Great Society came due, the cost of their food bills had gone up. In Washington the Republican National Committee armed its candidates with “tens of thousands of leaflets and stickers,” according to the Times, connecting LBJ’s spending with the increased cost of living. The country was awash in “Great Society funny money,” bogus dollar bills that read: “Progress is a shrinking dollar.” The “bill” came in the “Lyndon One” denomination bearing a picture of President Johnson beneath steer horns. Over 3,500 “LBJ supermarkets” sprang to life around the country from parades to county fairs, displaying food items alongside their skyrocketing prices. “Housewife brigades” were enlisted to pass out fliers on inflation, with one GOP Senate candidate in Michigan alone enlisting over 1,000 women to form “Operation Price Tag,” the women targeting Michigan shopping centers and supermarkets with their leaflets. (The candidate, Robert Griffin, would win his race.) The Republican National Chairman brandished a new poll that showed a shocking 45% of the American people now blamed the government, not the grocers, for inflation.
IN RETROSPECT, 1966 TURNED OUT TO BE a rare moment in American political history. It was in fact the beginning of a realization by everyday Americans that massive government spending programs, the backbone of the New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal, JFK’s New Frontier and LBJ’s Great Society, must finally be paid for — by them. In the cost of their groceries, their gas, their housing and everything else from clothes to college educations to steadily rising taxes.
They were furious.
The day after the election, shell-shocked Democrats looked around at the sight of what would become an ongoing political nightmare, a nightmare that, however momentarily suppressed, still haunts today. Serious damage had been done to the underlying political foundation of their party as it had existed since the 1930s. After three decades of campaigning successfully on the idea that government could be an endless cornucopia of programs with no visible negative economic consequence to average Americans, failure was abruptly at hand. No longer could Democrats simply assume success by campaigning with the famous strategy of FDR aide Harry Hopkins: “We shall tax and tax, and spend and spend, and elect and elect.”
Across the board in 1966 Republicans were victorious. Forty-seven new House members were on their way to Washington, along with three new U.S. Senators. Eight new Republican governors were headed for state capitals, along with over 700 new GOP state legislators.
Strikingly, seven future presidents of the United States, five of them Republicans, were active participants in the passion that was the 1966 election. Two future Republican presidents won their first offices that November election day, Ronald Reagan as governor of California and George H.W. Bush a House seat in Houston, Texas. On election night, one of Bush’s most enthusiastic supporters, his 20-year-old son George W., was in charge of posting election returns for his father’s election night party of 2,000 cheering Texans. Across the border in Arkansas, Georgetown University student Bill Clinton had used his summer vacation to work on the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former attorney general Frank Holt. In Grand Rapids, Michigan future president Gerald R. Ford won re-election to his own House seat and increased prominence in his new role as the House Minority Leader, while an out of office former Vice President Richard Nixon had redeemed his reputation as a loser in the 1960 and 1962 campaigns by campaigning relentlessly as the GOP’s self-appointed national spokesman. Nixon would be president-elect two years from this election day. And in Georgia, State Senator Jimmy Carter, a loser in that year’s Democratic primary for governor, set his sights on another try in 1970.
Most notably, in a sign of the future to come, in the very next election of 1968, the lessons of 1966 were, ominously for Democrats, still reverberating. Nixon and Democrat George Wallace, the former Alabama Governor running on a third-party ticket, would win 56.9% of the vote campaigning against the economics of the big spending Great Society. This left a shockingly meager 42.7% for the heir to the once-mighty politics and policies of the New Deal and the Great Society, LBJ’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Surveying the damage done in 1966 to the Democrats, the New York Times had posed the question of whether this wasn’t really about a white backlash to the passage of civil rights legislation or, perhaps, the growing war in Vietnam. They got their answer from Louis Harris, John F. Kennedy’s 1960 pollster. Reported the Times: “Louis Harris, the public opinion analyst, said his studies indicated that inflation and rising prices had been the most effective issue underlying Republican congressional victories.”
The mistake of believing off-year congressional elections are nothing more than a momentary referendum on the president of the day is as common as it is misleading. To dismiss the 1966 elections as a snapshot verdict of LBJ, or the 1986 elections the same for Reagan, or the 1994 elections a notice on Clinton (and so on for other chief executives) is to ignore completely the long-term trend of the underlying economic issue. Which is to say: the role of government versus the free market.
LIKE ITS GREAT DEPRESSION-DRIVEN counterpart election of 1930, the 1966 election signaled a fundamental change in American politics. In 1930, a year-plus after the 1929 stock market crash, frightened and angry Americans signaled that they were ready to go full bore on a diet of what was then referred to as “progressivism.” The 1930 election set in motion a decades-long celebration of the belief that unlimited government spending with all the bells and whistles of big government was the best way to govern America. Democrats, clobbered by Herbert Hoover only two years earlier, gained 52 seats in the House plus 8 in the Senate. Neither was enough to gain complete control, although several special elections later the House did fall to the Democrats. The Senate remained, narrowly, in GOP hands but was lost completely in 1932 to the FDR landslide. In 1934, Republicans lost still more seats in both bodies, not recouping until 1938’s off-year when they earned back 6 Senate seats and 81 in the House.
It was a telling moment in American politics that is frequently ignored.
In each and every case up until 1966, whether the nod went to Democrats or eventually to Republicans, the slide kept tilting towards the liberal end of the political scale. FDR’s programs or some variation on the theme kept moving forward. Even two outright congressional wins by the GOP (in 1946 and 1952, the latter with Eisenhower as the first GOP president in twenty years) barely managed to slow the progressive march. Each was reversed after a mere two years.
Not coincidentally, 1966 also proved to be the high-water mark for the breed known as the “liberal” or “moderate” Republican (the few remaining today known by some as the “RINO” — Republican In Name Only”.) This was the year of the Rockefeller Republicans, beginning with Rockefeller brothers Nelson (re-elected as governor of New York) and Winthrop (winning an upset as governor of Arkansas). Also campaigning against the economic policies of LBJ were winners Edward Brooke of Massachusetts (the first black elected to the U.S. Senate in the 20th century), Charles Percy of Illinois (U.S. Senate), Governor George Romney of Michigan, and Howard Baker as senator from Tennessee.
But while the future seemed to shine brightly for liberal Republicans that election night of 1966, in fact the election masked the continuation of their political decline, a decline so starkly visible two years earlier with Goldwater’s defeat of Rockefeller and Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton for the GOP presidential nomination. Curiously, just as today’s “moderate conservatives” snipe at the conservatism of Alaska’s Governor Sarah Palin (or Rush Limbaugh), it is perhaps worth noting that in 1966 two liberal Republican groups, the Republicans for Progress and the Ripon Society, pointedly refused to endorse Reagan’s race for California governor even as they were quite publicly enthused over the GOP moderates.
The political landscape of America had begun to change and change dramatically with the 1966 elections. A line was beginning to be drawn. It drew passions strong enough to involve the direct participation of a remarkable seven future presidents, the oldest then 55 (Reagan) and the two youngest (George W. and Clinton) both barely 20. What began in 1966 as a shopper’s rebellion against high food prices became, in reality, the political starting point for a revolution against a failed yet persistent idea that if the government simply spent more money, hired more bureaucrats, and raised more taxes all would somehow be well.
On one side was the shrinking number of the American public stampeded by the skilled exploitation of the Great Depression into the belief somebody else — a somebody else who was always richer than they were — was always around to pay for the next big spending, big government program. On the other side, with the bills for 34 years of big government not only coming due but being added to by the Great Society, there was recognition of the direct connection between massive spending, higher taxes and the higher costs for hamburger and milk. By a large majority, with housewives in the lead, in 1966 the American people began turning the economic version of an aircraft carrier in a different direction.
What does all of this mean for 2010?
That it may well be 1966 all over again.