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.

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  1. Thanks for pointing out FDR was a strong free-trader. Its amazing how many Democrats forget that he, Truman, and Kennedy were all strongly pro-free trade.

    His Latin American policy pre-1940 (which overturned the imperialist bull his cousin carried out) was also good.

    Thats probably the only two nice things I’ll say about FDR, though.

  2. Track record, track record, track record.

  3. Track record, track record, track record.

    Indeed. Track record predicted well how Earl Warren was to vote in Brown v. Board, didn’t it.

  4. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnsons, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush I “the budget hawk” are also forgotten men. Balancing the budget sounds good until constituents complain about not getting government money. I actually wonder how history might have turned out differently if FDR had stuck t o 1932 platform, having read about this before.

  5. I guess this is why Jesse votes for Donald Duck! 🙂

    I wonder if there’s any way to do a more long-term study candidates’s stated campaign positions (and/or track record, thank you, ABC) versus their performance in office to see if Jesse’s FDR example is representative or unique or closer to one or the other.

  6. FDR was a wheelchair-bound gay man who had advance knowledge of Pearl Harbor, and September 11th to boot… not that there’s anything wrong with that!

  7. Thats probably the only two nice things I’ll say about FDR, though.

    Hey – give a little love for Repeal…

  8. Oh yeah, I forgot prohibition repeal.

    1. And now we desperately need repeal again – to repeal the war on drugs.

      That seems to be the only way to eliminate the motivation provided by the vast illegal profits which drive criminals to persuade our children to try drugs in the first place.

  9. Hey – give a little love for Repeal…

    Bullshit. That gave us drunk-driving laws. 😉

  10. I think the article is a reminder that politicians will say whatever they think needs to be said to get elected. What they do once elected is repay the favor’s owed to those who financed them. I know that I am not the only person who see’s the recent swtiches to the Libertarian Party as a modern day “Oklahoma land grab”. With candidates seeing the LP’s ballot access as a means to establish themselves on a national level. Now maybe that’s just the way it is. If the LP decides to go with a Barr or a Gravel, well the majority does rule and we have to accept that. I would hope that the entire LP could really get behind a candidate who would really give American’s a different choice and usher in the kind of change FDR promised. MIichael Jingozian is not a Senator or a former Congressman. Nor is he a former Democrat or Republican. No he is not a media darling or a household name but he could become one. Yes i am a supporter because i believe we do need someone with business experience and we do need someone with political experience. If you would like some more information on the Jingozian campaign go to http://www.resetamerica.com

  11. I have long dreamed of having candidates sign legally binding contracts, stating that they will resign their office under certain precisely specified conditions.

    Yeah, I don’t see it happening, but I can always dream.

  12. how can you say probhibition was bad? it was just a reward for the big brewing companiesw tthat supported his campaign. everybody knows that butyou’re comveering it up jsut like youcovered up studes showing secondhand smoke causes cancer!!!!! you people dont care about drinking problems and alcoholism and how it affects the community. and your trying to do the same thing to the nations other drug laws. people in afghanistan who grow opium poppies ought to be shot.

  13. Is nanny serious or is that tongue in cheek? If she is serious, her name fits her.

  14. “All politicians are liars and nothing they say should ever be believed.”-I.F. Stone (I think)

  15. bookworm: Is nanny serious or is that tongue in cheek? If she is serious, her name fits her.

    nanny’s serious. And I’m really the real Stan. No, really.

  16. I’m joking. And it should be “the repeal of prohibition was just a favor to the big brewing companies”. My bad.

  17. i oppssedda teh propoghibiatioon on tehh abassis thhthat therehhe would be ellesls whiskshkey for the resthkl; of susussus scukkeksrs who follalwa thheh alwlaw.

  18. My professor wrote a book on the ‘issue uptake’, http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0521671329/reasonmagazinea-20/
    One of her findings is that whether an elected official keeps their campaign promises is directly related to their electoral vulnerability. Thus, FDR’s decade long run would not pressure him much at all to keep campaign promises.

  19. Heh, I hadn’t realized how libertarian FDR started out.

    I especially liked the part about ending Prohibition.

  20. I have long dreamed of having candidates sign legally binding contracts…

    I’m still waiting for the IRS and the Social Security Administration to sign legally binding contracts with me before they garnish my wages.

  21. “By not having strong convictions on global affairs in the first place, allowing neoconservative advisers to fill the void after the 9/11 attacks.”

    I’m seriously anti-neocon, but they don’t deserve this rap. It was Cheney and Rumsfeld who chose Wolfowitz, Libby, et al., and it was Bush who gladly chose for himself the messianic megalomaniac role of global “decider”. The voices of reason, like Powell, were frozen out. Those who told Bush what he wanted to hear (Condi, of course), replaced them. The neocons were enablers, not initiators.

  22. So, in addition to being a fascist, FDR was a hypocrite. Good to know.


  23. JCR,
    FDR had more of the “socialist-progressive” in him than “fascist”. But the two aren’t that far apart anyway, being separated only by a more aggressive militarism.

  24. Incidentally, I’m surprised joe hasn’t come yet to defend FDR and the New Deal.

  25. FDR had more of the “socialist-progressive” in him than “fascist”.

    Tell it to Korematsu, and all of the other US citizens that he rounded up and put in concentration camps.


  26. jcr,
    That’s true, I didn’t think about that. However, if we really want to go back to the source of fascism in this country, I think TR gets the prize. Nationalistic, socialistis (called “progressive” at the time), put them together and you get…

  27. Sorry, it’s supposed to be “socialistic” not “socialistis”.

  28. New Deal. FDR. All good stuff.

    (Does that count?)

  29. “First, we’re going to forcibly take all your gold from you- and pay you $20.67/oz.”

    “Next, we’ll make it ‘illegal’ for you to even own gold.”

    “Gold is now worth $35/oz!”

  30. In quasi-defense of W’s flipflopping on the “humble foreign policy,” there was that little intervening circumstance of 9/11. Perfectly debatable whether his foreign policy since then has been effective, but under certain circumstances politicians rightly throw their campaign platforms to the side. Al Gore, in a sense, certainly did. That is, in his 2000 campaign, and throughout his tenure as VP, he sounded very much like a neocon. (Isn’t there that youtube clip right out of the bizarro world comparing statements from Cheney and Gore on Iraq in the 90’s).

    Likewise with Roosevelt. It was one thing to pledge non-intervention in foreign affairs in 1932. Things changed just a tad by 1940, such that it probably made sense not to adhere stubbornly to the party platform from eight years earlier.

  31. Good point about FDR the candidate vs. FDR the president (though it begs the question: how the hell do we know who to vote for?)…

    I’ve had a theory about this for some time: if you’re gonna bother with voting, you should vote for the person who least represents what you stand for.

    In other words, if you want peace with China, vote for Nixon…

  32. So Bush the Lesser = Hoover + Iraq Disaster.

    Fair enough since I had no idea about Hoover’s foreclosure/lending actions –.

    But Bush is the real fascist also – never forget the prescient Lewis statement, “when fascism comes to America it will be waving a flag and carrying a cross”.

    I recently read ‘American Fascists’ by Chris Hedges – a very astute look at the religious right.

  33. that quote is by Upton Sinclair, btw – remarkable and ironic that I credited his rival with it.

  34. @Shrike,

    That’s Sinclair Lewis, not Upton Sinclair…two separate people……one’s a liar, btw.

  35. “Indeed. Track record predicted well how Earl Warren was to vote in Brown v. Board, didn’t it.”

    Never said it’s a 100% accurate, but if someone is for example a governor with a record of not vetoing tax raises and then claims that he’ll veto federal tax bills as president then you might want to be a bit more suspicious

  36. The Democratic Party Platform is now on: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu…..?pid=29595

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