Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: A life of Radical Amazement.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
In a speech at the Port of Baltimore this week, President Joe Biden acknowledged that inflation was “worrisome.” With consumer prices increasing 6.2% over the last 12 months, the administration understands that it has a problem on its hands. Of course, the primary concern is the economic health of the nation.
But inflation will also be a big political problem for the Democrats in the midterm campaigns. For all the attention that has been paid to education wars, the anti-vaccination movement or the fallout from Afghanistan, prices might turn out to be the biggest issue going into 2022. The consumer sentiment index, which measures how optimistic consumers feel about their financial prospects and the economy, has fallen to the lowest levels in a decade, according to early November data collected by the University of Michigan. Many Americans fear the worst, despite the positive signs, which include a strong job market.
From the second half of the 20th century onward, Republicans have used the issue of inflation to combat liberalism. If Biden doesn’t do more to address inflation, and if it doesn’t ease up by the time 2022 rolls around, we will see the GOP weaponizing this issue against Democrats and the liberal agenda once more – with great success, if history is any indication.
In 1952, for example, Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower focused on prices as a central theme of his campaign, in addition to anti-Communism, the conflict in Korea and the fall of China. After a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the cost of living was rising, the Republican platform included a line that blamed the Truman administration for “wanton extravagance and inflationary policies.”
Facing off against Adlai Stevenson, who won the Democratic nomination after President Harry Truman decided that he would not run for reelection, Eisenhower produced the first-ever televised political ads, many of which focused on rising prices.
In a series of clips titled “Eisenhower Answers America,” the candidate responded to questions from Americans, many of whom wanted help with their daily costs of living. In a staged conversation, one woman complained that she had paid 24 dollars for a small bag of groceries that she held up to the camera. “You know what things cost today,” another older woman said, “High prices are just driving me crazy.” Meanwhile, Republicans blamed inflation on New Deal spending and other government programs.
The issue of inflation was front and center yet again in the 1966 midterm campaigns, when the conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans hoped to rebound from their devastating losses in the 1964 election, which ushered in President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Great Society. There were a number of issues that conservatives used in the midterms to cut into Johnson’s huge majorities, with the prices of household items being one of them.
Even though inflation was under 3%, conservatives argued that growing federal deficits were provoking inflation by pouring too much federal money into the economy. Although inflation remained very low by historical standards, they pointed to the fact that the consumer price index rose by 0.5% in February 1966 – the largest increase for any February since 1951 during the Korean War.
The price crunch was most apparent in the supermarket. Pork chops, for instance, rose from 65 cents a pound in 1965 to 89 cents a pound in 1966. Besides meat, the price of transportation, medical care and household services increased during this time.
According to one internal White House poll, 76% of Californians gave the President unfavorable ratings because of the way he handled the cost of living. President Johnson said that in the 1950s it had been impossible for any politician to visit a home without being asked, “What do you think about McCarthy? In 1966, the inevitable question became: “What do you think about inflation?”
The Republican Campaign Committee seized the opportunity and sent out pamphlets that criticized “Great Society play money” and pictured Johnson with the sarcastic words, “Progress is a shrinking dollar.” Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen stumped for his fellow Republicans in the midterm elections, saying, “Every housewife who shops in a grocery store knows this. They are the living, breathing signs of this destructive burglarizing force.”
With the issue of inflation on voters’ minds, Democrats suffered substantial losses in the midterms. While Democrats retained control of Congress, the size of the conservative coalition grew substantially. Republicans gained 47 seats in the House and 3 seats in the Senate, well above what most pundits were predicting.
Inflation would remain an integral part of the conservative playbook in years to come. In 1980, when inflation rose to about 14% while economic growth slowed and the country struggled with stagflation, as it was called – Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan made sure to keep reminding voters about prices. In one ad, a voice-over blamed President Jimmy Carter for astronomically high inflation rates.
In 2021, inflation has once again become a topic of the national conversation, with widespread concern over supply chain disruptions, the price of consumer goods, and the potential for higher interest rates.
It’s not just that prices are rising – businesses and consumers alike have experienced the supply chain bottleneck firsthand. Unless conditions change soon, these problems are likely to become a key message of the Republican midterm campaign. This is an issue that hits home, and the GOP will have little trouble riling up voters against the current administration and its policies.
It might be true, as the economist Paul Krugman argues, that this spike is a short-term phenomenon, more akin to what the United States experienced in 1947 than 1979.
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Regardless, inflation remains a serious political problem for President Biden.
For the sake of Democrats, the President will have to do more than say the situation is worrisome. He will need to forcefully address how he is dealing with these concerns and how his policies will help to alleviate, rather than aggravate, the underlying pressures causing Americans to pay more for their goods.