Exactly half a century ago next year, the Republican Party fell considerably out of step with the nation — and even more out of step with Michigan.
The results were disastrous. Michigan Gov. George Romney managed to survive that fall’s election, but only by distancing himself from the presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, who became the only candidate in history to lose Michigan by a million votes.
Apart from the governor’s race, the GOP lost four seats in Congress; eight in the state Senate; 21 in the state House.
Nationally, it was even worse. Republicans were left with less than a third of the members in both houses of Congress.
President Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats could, and did, pass his Great Society legislation - and pretty much anything else they wanted - with scarcely any effort at all.
Could a similar disaster be about to happen again?
Nobody knows. But there are some very disturbing signs for Republicans. Last week, a new Gallup poll showed that nationally, fewer people like the GOP than ever before.
The respected polling organization found that only 28 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party.
More than twice as many — 62 percent — have an unfavorable view of the GOP. Granted, the voters aren’t in love with President Obama’s party either — but their numbers are much better.
Democrats were viewed favorably by 43 percent; 49 percent viewed them unfavorably. Without any doubt, the government shutdown and the bitter stalemate in Congress has hurt the standing of all politicians, especially those in Washington.
Yet both Gallup and a bevy of other polls seem to clearly indicate people blame Republicans more. That was the case when there was an earlier shutdown in 1995, an event often seen as starting President Clinton on his way to a relatively easy re-election.
But the stakes are far higher this time. Nobody before has ever seriously suggested the United States might default on the national debt. Last week, however, that started to seem a real possibility.
To the shock of the business and financial community, several influential GOP congressmen said they thought default, either now or in the near future, might not be so bad. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C, claimed Washington was saving nearly enough in salaries during the government shutdown that it can afford most of the costs of servicing the debt, something economists said wasn’t even close to true.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016, told the New York Times he saw failing to extend the debt ceiling as shock therapy to force the government to balance the budget. “If you propose it that way, the American public will say that sounds like a pretty reasonable idea.”
Not, however, to those who know money.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, two thoroughly GOP-leaning groups, urged Congress last week to raise the debt ceiling.
Banking analyst Dick Bove of Rafferty Capital Markets told CNBC that if the nation should default, “The devastation to the United States would be so severe, that it would take decades to recover from the depression,” that it would cause.
Unemployment would soar. The value of the dollar would plunge; those whose retirement funds are in stocks and bonds would see much of their value wiped out. Nor would that be all.
Rightly or wrongly, our economy has been sustained for years by our ability to borrow billions from other nations. They lend it to us for the same reason children in Traverse City buy savings bonds: Their money is guaranteed by the “full faith and credit” of the United States of America.
That’s why the dollar has been the world currency for decades, and why other nations link their currencies to the dollar, not the euro.
If that ends, the value of the dollar, and of everything of value in the United States of America, would plunge.
The impact of a default might also paralyze loans. Financial analyst Bove also told CNBC “a true default by the United States Treasury would wipe out bank equity. All bank lending to the private sector in the United States would stop, immediately,” he predicted.
Meantime, U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, said any default could send home mortgage rates rocketing by an average of $100 a month, and might endanger the pensions of disabled veterans. Worse, according to an analysis by Democrats on the Hose Ways and Means Committee, “If Republicans force default, (millions of) Americans won’t get their Social Security.”
Charles Ballard, an economics professor at Michigan State University, said it‘s all about trust. “Five years ago, with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, we saw what happens to financial markets when there is a major loss of trust. We got the worst recession of our lifetime,” said Ballard, the author of “Michigan’s Economic Future.”
But comparing that to a potential default, he added, “is like comparing a minnow to a whale.” The consequences of a default would be “catastrophic.”
There are those who think the effects wouldn’t be as severe as the analysts are predicting. Not at first, anyway.
But if a default occurs, and these scenarios are anywhere near to being reasonably accurate, and the voters do blame the GOP for the catastrophe, future Republicans may look back on 1964 as a picnic.
That is, if the party survives.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, an ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.