Will There Be Another FDR?

The prevailing wisdom among left-liberal critics is that the Democratic Party needs to restore the New Deal to the center of its agenda. With an economy teetering on the brink of depression, a government abdicating any responsibility for the well-being of society’s least well-off, and an opposition party groping for direction, it does seem like the early 1930s all over again. And in the wake of the disastrous midterm elections, now clearly appears to be an opportune time for the Democrats to revive the principles that sustained them from the FDR to the Clinton administrations.

No disagreement here. For one thing, political campaigns are a lot more exciting when they become a struggle between competing visions and ideologies, rather than a contest over focus-grouped issues and candidates' contrasting personalities. It is no underestimation of the importance of the Social Security "lockbox" and prescription drugs for the elderly to suggest that these are not exactly issues destined to inspire the next generation of voters. And aside from Clinton, the Democrats have obviously had a difficult time finding candidates who can win personality contests.

The original New Deal, of course, sprang from much deeper roots than just the personal appeal of its figurehead. Every left-wing scholar of the subject will stress the importance of union militance, of general strikes, of the restive poor and the galvanized black vote, all of which pushed FDR further to the left than he really wanted to go. Liberals, meanwhile, prefer to emphasize the influence of Progressive reformers and planners—the far-seeing types who staffed the New Deal’s innumerable agencies and implemented its endlessly innovative programs.

I have no doubt that FDR heard the angry voices outside the White House gates, or that his administration employed significant numbers of bright and imaginative staff. My concern instead is that FDR’s own individual role in helping to create the New Deal is being neglected in the current discussion. To say that FDR alone made the New Deal would be false, the stuff of a History Channel biography or the long-discredited "Great Man" theory of history. But to portray him simply as a pragmatic politician trying to patch together a system in crisis is equally narrow, and ultimately wrongheaded.

FDR, after all, was clearly different from Herbert Hoover, not least because his initials made for a better acronym. Take, for example, the case of the Bonus Army. In response to the cries of desperation of 20,000 WWI veterans camped near the White House demanding the bonuses promised to them by the government, Hoover called on the Army, led by Douglas MacArthur, to crush this unruly "mob" of "insurrectionists" who dared to seek government relief. Would FDR’s eventual widespread distribution of public assistance reflect only a difference in his philosophical orientation from Hoover’s, an example of the former’s pragmatism rather than idealism? Or did FDR have a set of ideals of his own, which he then applied to the dire circumstances of the 1930s?

The perspective of those at the top, in fact, does matter much in terms of the outcome of the protest emanating from below. For there to be a second coming of the New Deal, a galvanized citizenry will have to demand more and better social programs and a vital public sector. But such pleas will be heard only by politicians genuinely interested in listening. A New Deal revival thus requires an FDR revival of sorts, in order to help figure out both why the country moved in the direction it did during the 1930s, as well as how it may do so again.

Who, alas, was FDR, and what was so new about his deal?

After gaining national notoriety first as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson and then as the Democrats’ unsuccessful vice presidential candidate in 1920, FDR returned home to Hyde Park. He would not run for office for another eight years, and during that time would hold only the not-so-pivotal chair of the Taconic State Park Commission. But behind the scenes, FDR quietly cultivated his ties to organized labor and both local and national Democrats. And he maintained his tenuous alliance with Al Smith, New York’s four-term Governor and the Democrats’ presidential candidate in 1928, whose working-class politics and persona were at times a bit too coarse for the patrician Roosevelt.

Throughout the 1920s FDR’s politics, according to biographer James MacGregor Burns, were "moderately liberal in a moderately liberal party." Roosevelt himself believed that the Democrats should represent "progressivism with a brake on" rather than "conservatism with a move on"—thus proving that political gobbledygook is not unique to the present era. As for the hot-button issue of the day, prohibition, FDR even found a way to triangulate, neither openly supporting it nor calling for its immediate repeal.

Encouraged by New York’s Democratic leadership, Roosevelt accepted the Party’s nomination for Governor in 1928. His main campaign platforms would preview some of the eventual core features of the New Deal: a broader state health program, better old-age pensions, the expansion of public utilities. Able to appear sympathetic to both upstate voters and Tammany’s base in New York City, Roosevelt managed to eek out a narrow victory. Meanwhile, Herbert Hoover easily won the race for President, trouncing Al Smith amidst a fury of anti-Catholic reaction.

Over the next four years, Hoover fiddled as the nation starved. In New York, FDR was more attentive to the hardships of the Depression, but not radically so. He was able to pass mild extensions of credit to farmers, and a handful of reforms benefiting labor. But his attempts to push through more progressive measures, like a minimum wage, were rebuffed by a conservative legislature egged on by a reactionary rural press. Still, FDR began to appoint quite progressive administrators, most notably Frances Perkins, to run state agencies; and build his personal appeal, as evidenced by his landslide second victory in 1930 as New York Governor (then elected every two years).

Despite his Progressive leanings, Burns observes, by 1932 FDR did not "differ fundamentally from Hoover over domestic relief and recovery policies." Both opposed federal spending on public assistance, saying it was best left to the states; and both stressed the need for balanced budgets, thus precluding the government’s ability to act. Roosevelt nevertheless had a reputation as an innovator, as someone who believed that government was a necessary and positive good. Such a belief, of course, makes one a fire-breathing radical these days.

To win the Democratic nomination in 1932, FDR first had to defeat Al Smith, who now considered Roosevelt an ungrateful protégé. He did so by stitching together an unlikely group of supporters: "Harvard friends, city bosses, millionaires, Western radicals, Southern Bourbons, opportunistic Midwesterners… Ku Kluxers [who hated Smith], old Wilsonites, old Bryanites, professors, high-tariff men, low-tariff men." Such a hodge-podge of different interests would soon be replicated in the inherently shaky "New Deal coalition," which through the mid-60s consisted mainly of middle class liberals, Southern segregationists, unionized labor, and African-Americans—strange bedfellows, indeed.

After his narrow victory at the Party’s convention, which used to be a much more exciting affair, FDR made a memorable acceptance speech. In it, he declared the Democrats to be the "party of liberal thought, of planned action, of enlightened national outlook, and of the greatest good for the greatest number of our citizens." Only when compared to their opposites do such notions seem at all radical. It was FDR’s last sentence that unintentionally contained the speech’s most noteworthy phrase, however. "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people," he concluded.

Those two words apparently had been of little importance to Roosevelt and his speechwriters. But the next day, a cartoonist named Rollin Kirby depicted a poor farmer with a hoe looking up at an airplane labeled "New Deal," and the new era now had a name. And it would be a time in which the American government, as FDR had also vowed, would remember the "forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid." Such a person’s inability to contribute to campaign coffers appears to have made him irrelevant amidst current political discussion.

After crushing Hoover in the fall election, Roosevelt and his advisers, as William Leuchtenburg argues, came to office with a "body of theory a good deal more coherent than is commonly suggested." "From the Populists," Leuchtenburg writes, "came a suspicion of Wall Street and a bevy of ideas for regulating agriculture; from the mobilization of World War I, they derived instrumentalities for the direction of the economy; from urban social reformers of the Jane Addams tradition arose a concern for the aged and the indigent." FDR’s pragmatic policymaking would thus cohere around a central ideal: the best government was an active one.

In his first 100 days in office, FDR would push through an astonishing spate of legislation, some of it moderate, some of it further to the left than ever seen before. Public assistance, public works, public utilities, labor rights, financial regulation—all provided nearly as much relief as the end of Prohibition, which took place just one month into his first term. The next 12 years of FDR’s relationship to the New Deal, and the next sixty years of the New Deal’s relationship to American politics, must await future telling.

Will the Democrats find a neo-FDR for the 2004 campaign? I suppose it depends on which qualities one sees as constitutive of such a figure. A perfectly liberal voting record, or a basic approach to government? A clear, uncompromising ideology, or a willingness to listen to the voices below? While those combining such qualities may possibly emerge, candidates meeting none of these criteria most surely will.

One thing, however, is certain: the New Deal coalition, at least in its post-1960s incarnation, remains intact. Middle class liberals, union labor, and the black vote—as well as the increasing Latino vote— still drive the Democratic Party, even as its leadership targets white suburban males and retirees. Yet while the 61% of voters who did not turn out in the midterm elections may seem ripe for the picking, key players like Clinton counsel the party to stay in the political middle. What, one can only wonder, is the Democrats deal?


Theodore Hamm