Greetings all, and thanks for welcoming me back on a longer-term basis.
Recently a few high-profile commenters have rediscovered Franklin Roosevelt’s relevance. First The Daily Show and then The New Yorker marveled at the aptness of Roosevelt’s cheerful scorn for those who say they will preserve Social Security (and Medicare, one might now add) while simultaneously promising to cut taxes.
It was a position Roosevelt was accustomed to ridiculing, as in this 1944 campaign film (directed by Chuck Jones!) depicting the Republican provision for Social Security:
Roosevelt remained an inescapable presence for long after his death, and even today there is scarcely a place in America whose civic spaces don’t proclaim some New Deal heritage; coming or going from my hometown one sees WPA murals in the airport, and where I live now there is scarcely a city that lacks a post office or sidewalk mentioning its New Deal legacy. When Bill Clinton came to campus earlier this month he spent time preparing in the Shields Library reading room – built by Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration.
Yet modern Democrats resist mentioning Roosevelt. When the President felt pressed to defend public spending, he cited … Abraham Lincoln. Mike Grunwald notwithstanding, President Obama very clearly feels no kinship to Franklin Roosevelt. (The British left, in the person of Tony Blair, briefly took up the mantle of the New Deal and quickly abandoned it.)
The break between the modern Democratic Party and FDR goes back probably to 1960, when Eleanor Roosevelt made clear she thought little of John Kennedy (though honestly, as liberalism goes, Adlai Stevenson was no prize).
But it’s far clearer lately, in an economic crisis that appears to demand comparison to the Great Depression. It’s clear enough that Jon Stewart and David Remnick feel compelled to say (to begin as the President would), look: FDR engineered a strong recovery and a landslide victory by standing clearly for his New Deal.
The problem with Roosevelt for modern Democrats is partly one of defacement; decades of controversy (some legitimate, some ginned-up) over the New Deal have cast his reputation into doubt. And it is partly one of attempted effacement; it is no coincidence that there was a movement literally to cast Ronald Reagan in FDR’s place on the dime (one that Nancy Reagan opposed).
But the problem comes partly from Roosevelt himself: he is unrepackageable for modern America. He had too little reverence for the financiers who are the acknowledged masters of our universe – his attitude toward them ranged from what one banker called merely “naughty” to sadism – when his program to raise commodity prices brought squeals from short-sellers, he ordered Henry Morgenthau, Jr., to “squeeze the life out of the shorts and put the price up just as far as you can.” He said so, Morgenthau wrote at the time, “with fight in his tone of voice.” Remnick and Stewart notwithstanding, whatever restrained contempt the President was able to show for Mitt Romney in the second debate (“Please proceed” surely has a fine Anglo-Saxon subtext) he’s not likely to show Rooseveltian fight against the Wall Street titans. Citizens United means he can’t, and his career – like that of all modern Democrats of presidential timbre – suggests he doesn’t want to.