This weekend's column: Americans as cockeyed optimists
Published: August 24, 2012 05:44PM
Updated: August 24, 2012 05:44PM

Above: Happy Days Are Here Again!

- Americans: Cockeyed optimists - George Pyle, The Salt Lake Tribune

Al Smith, who ran for president in 1928, and Hubert Humphrey, who was his party’s candidate in 1968, were each known to their generation of Democrats as the Happy Warrior. They both lost. Smith to the serious engineer Herbert Hoover, Humphrey to the dour Richard Nixon.

Smith’s successor as governor of New York, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, did win the presidency in 1932, under the theme song, "Happy Days Are Here Again." His image, then and now, is one of smiling optimism, often with a long cigarette holder protruding at a jaunty angle from his joyously clenched teeth.

Time was that Republicans, about as far back as there have been Republicans, had an image of being much more austere. Silent, if not downright sepulchral, Calvin Coolidge. Warren "Return to Normalcy" Harding. The First Republican, Abraham Lincoln, is remembered in written history for his sense of humor ("If I were really two-faced, would I be wearing this one?"). But the photographic record makes it look like the poor man never smiled.

The pendulum of history swings back and forth. In 1864, the Republicans were the party of civil rights. In 1964, the Democrats were. And in 1980, Ronald "It’s Morning Again in America" Reagan used his movie-star smile to soundly evict President Jimmy "Malaise" Carter, by then a wan and pale relic of his The Grin Will Win image of only four years before.

Since then, it has usually been the Republicans who exude the air of Mission Accomplished optimism, while the Democrats, at their best, have been sincerely wonkish individuals who are here to insist we take our it’s-about-competence, global-warming, lock box, last-man-to -die-for-a-mistake medicine.

(OK. Bill Clinton was both a wonk and a happy guy. But, in retrospect, he may have been happy for the wrong reasons. And Dick Cheney was bone-chillingly serious. But he wasn’t, officially, president.)

In 2008, the tables turned again. Audacity of Hope Barack Obama defeated You Kids Get Off My Lawn John McCain.

Comes now 2012. Obama doesn’t smile so much anymore. He’s less Vulcan, more Romulan.

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, looks positively giddy. And the Republican pitch is based on four points of towering optimism:

You will be rich. So you don’t want high taxes on the wealthy.

You will never be poor. So you don’t want government spending money to help people survive poverty.

You will never be sick. So you don’t want the federal government designing a plan to get affordable health insurance for everyone.

• Neither you, nor anyone close to you, will ever be unwillingly pregnant, whether from rape, carelessness or bad luck. So you buy the rape-victims-don’t-get-pregnant meme that has been dominating the news the last few days.

It is all based on the tea party/Paul Ryan rationale for cutting government spending enough to match up with the large tax cuts for the rich, even though the Ryan budget still doesn’t balance without projections of economic growth so large they require a hit of LSD to be believed.

It could well work. Americans, as Reagan saw, are an optimistic lot. We tamed a wild land. Struck out across mountains and deserts in the belief that we’d make a better life. Went to the moon. Bought Facebook stock.

This year, the election may turn on whether our optimism is based, like Hoover’s, on the idea that it’ll all be fine if government doesn’t act, or, like FDR’s, on the idea that it may well be fine if our government does the job we created it for.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is optimistic that he will receive large quantities of fulsome praise at gpyle@sltrib.com or via Twitter at @debatestate.