The New Franklin Roosevelts

Don't count on a candidate's campaign stances to tell you how he'll behave in office


FDR lives! Last night Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the majority leader of the Senate, received the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Distinguished Public Service Award at a dinner dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the New Deal. The organizers praised the politicians for "the parallels to be drawn between their present leadership and the New Deal period, when so much important and progressive legislation was pioneered with the cooperation of Congress."

It might sound odd coming from a libertarian, but I wish the Pelosi-Reid Democrats had more in common with Franklin Roosevelt. Not the Franklin Roosevelt who occupied the White House from 1933 to 1945, but the Franklin Roosevelt who aspired to the White House in the election of 1932. The Democratic platform of that year is a remarkable document, considering the way the party's candidate went on to govern. It isn't a libertarian manifesto—it endorses several subsidies and regulations—but it hardly embraces the enormous expansion in federal power that FDR would achieve. The very first plank calls for "an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance to accomplish a saving of not less than twenty-five per cent in the cost of the Federal Government." (It also asks "the states to make a zealous effort to achieve a proportionate result.") Subsequent planks demand a balanced budget, a low tariff, the repeal of Prohibition, "a sound currency to be preserved at all hazards," "no interference in the internal affairs of other nations," and "the removal of government from all fields of private enterprise except where necessary to develop public works and natural resources in the common interest." The document concludes with a quote from Andrew Jackson: "equal rights to all; special privilege to none." It sounds more like Ron Paul than Pelosi.

FDR's campaign reflected that platform. He accused Herbert Hoover of "reckless and extravagant spending," and he further denounced the Republican incumbent for believing "we ought to center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible." Even when he called for interventions in the economy, he generally couched his words in the old liberals' language of equal treatment rather than the new liberals' vision of enlightened central planning. In his famous Forgotten Man speech of April 1932—itself a sustained allusion to an essay by the pro-market sociologist William Graham Sumner—the Democratic candidate pointed to the wave of foreclosures sweeping the nation. Noting that Hoover had created a "two billion dollar fund…put at the disposal of the big banks, the railroads and the corporations of the Nation," FDR averred that the government should "provide at least as much assistance to the little fellow as it is now giving to the large banks and corporations."

Once in office, the new administration did indeed repeal Prohibition, and it eventually lowered some trade barriers as well. The rest of Roosevelt's anti-statist rhetoric resembles his actual policies about as closely as the last seven years reflect George W. Bush's promises to give us a smaller federal government and a "humble foreign policy." In 1932, a classical liberal could easily conclude that Roosevelt was closer to his views than Hoover, an old progressive who had displayed a lifelong love of central planning and government-enforced cartels, a man who bragged during the campaign that he had responded to the Depression with "the most gigantic program of economic defense and counterattack ever evolved in the history of the Republic." Among other things, President Hoover had jacked up spending, installed agricultural price-support programs, pressured businesses to follow Washington's wage dictates, and created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. But by the time a cerebral hemorrhage cut short FDR's fourth term, the federal bureaucracy's power had grown so enormously that Hoover was widely remembered as the last apostle of laissez faire.

Seventy-six years after Roosevelt's first presidential victory, we're again faced with the task of weighing a candidate's campaign promises and wondering what, if anything, they tell us about how the politician would actually govern. This isn't simply a matter of avoiding ill-informed projection, though both Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have a talent for attracting supporters whose views are diametrically opposed to the stated opinions of their candidate. Nor is it just a matter of sussing out dishonesty, though that's obviously a part of the equation as well: Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has lied brazenly about everything from NAFTA to Tuzla, and it's hard to believe she's being upfront about her views on Iraq.

The truth is, would-be presidents don't always care about the issues that turn out to be most important. How did Bush flip his foreign policy views so easily? By not having strong convictions on global affairs in the first place, allowing neoconservative advisers to fill the void after the 9/11 attacks. It's easy to imagine, say, John McCain doing something similar during an economic crisis, given that he has already radically reinvented his economic philosophy twice in the last decade, shifting leftwards in 2000 and back to the right in 2008.

Come 2012, President Obama might be explaining why he is sending more troops to Tehran; or President McCain could be preparing emergency legislation to nationalize the banks. If so, our leader's former self will join Bush the humble non-interventionist and Roosevelt the budget hawk on the fringes of the nation's memory. A candidate's campaign persona: There's the true Forgotten Man.

Jesse Walker is the managing editor of reason and the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America.