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Why the Candidates Still Use FDR as Their Measure
It’s not surprising that Democrats seek to wrap themselves in the Roosevelt cloak; what’s harder to understand is why so many Republicans do too. A distinguished historian explains.
February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
FDR’s role as civic educator frequently took a decidedly partisan turn, for he proved to be an especially effective party leader. In 1932, in an election that unraveled traditional party ties, he became the first Democrat elected to the White House with a popular majority since Franklin Pierce eighty years before. Yet this heady triumph, reflecting resentment at Hoover more than approval for FDR and the Democrats, might have been short-lived if Roosevelt had not built a constituency of lower-income ethnic voters in the great cities tenuously allied with white voters in the Solid South.
He brought into his administration former Republicans such as Henry Wallace and Harold Ickes; enticed hundreds of thousands of Socialists, such as the future California congressman Jerry Voorhis, to join the Democrats; worked with anti-Tammany leaders like Fiorello La Guardia in New York; backed the independent George Norris against the Democratic party’s official nominee in Nebraska; and forged alliances with third parties such as the American Labor party. In 1938 he even attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to “purge” conservative Democrats from the party and in World War II may even have sought to unite liberal Republicans of the Wendell Willkie sort with liberal Democrats in a new party, though the details of that putative arrangement are obscure.
Roosevelt won such a huge following both for himself and for his party by putting together the most ambitious legislative program in the history of the country, thereby considerably enhancing the role of the President as chief legislator. He was not the first chief executive in this century to adopt that role, but he developed the techniques to a point beyond any to which they had been carried before. He made wide use of the device of special messages, and he accompanied these communications with drafts of proposed bills. He wrote letters to committee chairmen or members of Congress to urge passage of his proposals; summoned the congressional leadership to White House conferences on legislation; used agents like the presidential adviser Tommy Corcoran on Capitol Hill to corral maverick Democrats; and revived the practice of appearing in person before Congress. He made even the hitherto mundane business of bill signing an occasion for political theater; it was he who initiated the custom of giving a presidential pen to a congressional sponsor of legislation as a memento. In the First Hundred Days, Roosevelt adroitly dangled promises of patronage before congressmen, but without delivering on them until he had the legislation he wanted. The result, as one commentator put it, was that “his relations with Congress were to the very end of the session tinged with a shade of expectancy which is the best part of young love.”
To the dismay of the Republican leadership, Roosevelt showed himself to be a past master not just at coddling his supporters in Congress but at disarming would-be opponents. The conservative Republican congressman Joseph W. Martin, who had the responsibility of insulating his party members in the House from FDR’s charm, complained that the President, “laughing, talking, and poking the air with his long cigarette holder,” was so magnetic that he “bamboozled” even members of the opposition. Martin resented that he had to rescue opposition members from the perilous “moon glow.”
To be sure, FDR’s success with Congress has often been exaggerated. The Congress of the First Hundred Days, it has been said, “did not so much debate the bills it passed…as salute them as they went sailing by,” but in later years Congress passed the bonus bill over his veto; shelved his “Court-packing” plan; and, on neutrality policy, bound the President like Gulliver. After the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards law in 1938, Roosevelt was unable to win congressional approval of any further New Deal legislation. Moreover, some of the main New Deal measures credited to Roosevelt were proposals originating in Congress that he either outrightly opposed or accepted only at the last moment, such as federal insurance of bank deposits, the Wagner Act, and public housing. In fact, by latter-day standards, his operation on the Hill was primitive. He had no congressional liaison office, and he paid too little attention to rank-and-file members.
Still, Roosevelt’s skill as chief legislator is undeniable. A political scientist has stated: “The most dramatic transformation in the relationship between the presidency and Congress occurred during the first two terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR changed the power ratio between Congress and the White House, publicly taking it upon himself to act as the leader of Congress at a time of deepening crisis in the nation. More than any other president, FDR established the model of the most powerful legislative presidency on which the public’s expectations still are anchored.”