Joe Biden on Hubert Humphrey, 1976

A little while ago, I began an article on the great Minnesota liberal, Hubert Humphrey, by saying:

Hubert Humphrey was no conservative. His biographer, Carl Solberg, wrote that Humphrey learned two lessons growing up in Huron, South Dakota in the 1920s and 1930s that remained with him for the rest of his life: “The first was that individuals, far from being masters of their own fate, could become powerless victims of catastrophes—droughts, dust storms, bankruptcy, foreclosures. The second was that government could help people—specifically the Humphrey family in their drugstore, through federal farm relief and other emergency funds assisting their customers—survive the buffets of such forces.”

“Big government is a necessary consequence of an urban, industrial, corporate nation,” Humphrey wrote. As a Senator of prodigious legislative output between 1948 and 1964, he was a driving force behind creating the Job Corps, food stamps, and Medicare. From 1964, when Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in the presidential election, to 1968, liberalism was the dominant governing ideology in the United States and Hubert Humphrey, as vice president, exemplified it. Republican Everett Dirksen, then-Senate Minority Leader, said “[Humphrey] is the modern liberal.”

In April 1976, Humphrey was embarking on is fourth run for president and getting off to a better start than in any of his previous campaigns. The New York Times wrote:

There is no explosive issue like Vietnam dividing Humphrey from his political allies. There is, with Ted Kennedy’s disavowals increasingly accepted, no magnetic figure looming over him, drawing away his constituencies, as John and later Robert Kennedy did with minorities, or Eugene McCarthy and later George McGovern with academics and reformers. There is no brooding presence of Lyndon Johnson, diminishing Humphrey’s stature by publicly demonstrating his subservience.

Further, as Humphrey himself observed, “The issues today are tailor‐made to my kind of politics ‐jobs, the economy, agriculture. The issues in the past were not.” Instead of defending a war of growing cost and foggy purpose, Humphrey now takes his Joint Economic Committee across the country to probe the social costs of unemployment, and to preach the case for federally guaranteed full employment. 

The mainstream of the Democratic Party‐from Henry Jackson to Morris Udall‐has adopted Humphrey’s position on the central issue of jobs. The Hawkins‐Humphrey bill would put the financial power of the Federal Government behind a full employment policy by making the Government the employer of last resort through public‐service jobs. Politically, every important element of the party labor unions, big‐city mayors, minorities‐is wholeheartedly committed to Federal spending to put the jobless to work, and on this issue Humphrey holds the high ground.

But the time they were-a changin’. By 1976, the old Keynesian promise of strong economic growth and full employment driven by high public spending and cheap money was breaking down. In real terms, federal government spending rose by 69.9% between 1970 and 1975. Inflation rose from 1.6% in 1965 to 9.1% in 1975. Even so, the unemployment rate rose from 4.9% in 1970 to 8.5% in 1975 and the United States was in recession from November 1973 to March 1975. In 1978, Californians would vote for Proposition 13, a hefty tax cut. In 1979 Paul Volcker would be appointed chair of the Federal Reserve to fight inflation with tighter monetary policy.

Even some Democrats were on board with this smaller government agenda including, as the Times put it:

Joe Biden, the 33‐year‐old Delaware Senator, youngest, most clearly shaped by Vietnam and Watergate, a frequent naysayer on Government spending programs…

In 1976, Senator Biden was backing Jimmy Carter, saying:

“I think the thing that’s most wrong with Hubert Humphrey,” says Joe Biden, “is that he is not cognizant of the limited, finite ability government has to deal with people’s problems. And I wonder whether Humphrey has the intestinal fortitude to look at some programs and say, ‘No.”

Researching my article I read a lot about Hubert Humphrey. I came to respect and even quite like him. But I never found myself convinced by his arguments for bigger government. I think Senator Biden had it right back in 1976: bigger government is not the solution to our problems.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.