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Take the FDR

Democrats should embrace Roosevelt's legacy

This November 8 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s election as president of the United States. Chosen to resolve the worst non-military crisis in the nation’s history, Roosevelt led the country through the Great Depression as well as its greatest military crisis since the Civil War. Americans have memorialized him on the dime and in Washington, DC. Yet for some reason Republicans want to run against his legacy. It’s a fight Democrats should let the GOP pick.

Three-quarters of a century ago this week, about a quarter of the American workforce was officially unemployed and around half of those working had only part-time jobs. In the summer of 1932, the U.S. Army dispersed veterans of the Great War who had gathered in Washington to ask for relief. Americans watching the newsreel footage saw citizens like themselves fleeing tanks. Under those circumstances, Roosevelt won with fifty-seven percent of the popular vote, and the Democrats swept to an overwhelming Congressional majority. In the first hundred days of Roosevelt’s presidency, Congress passed vague laws giving him almost plenary powers to fight the Depression.

Now, if you believe the Republican punditocracy, the ensuing years brought a swelling of the state for its own sake. As Amity Shlaes puts it, “The New Deal had a purpose beyond curing the Depression. It was to make people look to Washington for help at all times.” And so the state grew, as George Will writes: “Before Roosevelt, the federal government was unimpressive relative to the private sector. Under Calvin Coolidge ... its revenue averaged 4 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 18.6 percent today.” Will goes further: the New Deal inaugurated “the era of confidently comprehensive, continent-wide attempts to reform complex social systems.”

Will's gratuitous alliteration can be fun. Let’s try some: this critique of Roosevelt results from crudely compressing history into compartments convenient to the cramped credo of contemporary conservatism.

It also rests on a treatment of figures that falls between fudging and fibbing. For example, Will says, accurately, that under Coolidge, federal revenues averaged about 4 percent of GDP. Then he implies it was the New Deal that pushed them up to modern levels. But in 1936, just after the New Deal’s big relief bill and the “soak the rich” tax act, revenues ran to 4.78 percent of GDP. The highest they got during the New Deal was 6.49 percent of GDP, in 1938--but that was more because GDP shrank in the 1937-38 recession than because revenues grew; by 1939 revenues were back down to 5.41 percent of GDP. They did not begin their spike into modern territory until after World War II: in 1947 revenues jumped sharply from around 10 percent to around 14.5 percent of GDP and stayed high through the Eisenhower years. Yet Will blames the New Deal for the events of the postwar era when, as U.S. News and World Report wrote in 1950, the "Cold War [became] almost a guarantee against a bad depression."

There’s more of the same in Shlaes’s treatment of unemployment figures (which I’ve written about here) and still more when Jerry Bowyer and Glenn Meakem characterize the eight or so percent average annual growth the U.S. economy turned in during the New Deal's first years, and the ten or so percent it averaged during the New Deal's later years as “merely not shrinking.” This is true, in the same way it is true that Roosevelt’s win in 1936 with over 60 percent of the popular vote was “merely not losing.”

One could keep on cleaning up this cascade of querulous crotchets (okay, I’ll stop). One could acknowledge the New Deal’s failures and enumerate its more important successes, pointing out that its lasting policies did not increase the state’s power to do things, but rather used the state as a lever to improve Americans’ own negotiating power. One could point out that, for example, instead of setting wages and benefits, the New Deal gave legal standing to unions so they could negotiate wages and benefits--as Senator Robert Wagner said, “we intend to rely upon democratic self-help by industry and labor instead of courting the pitfalls of an arbitrary or totalitarian State.” Indeed, a good short book on the New Deal would take due notice of both its weaknesses and strengths while offering such an analysis. One could further point out that truly conservative small-r republicans fretting over the growth of the state and erosion of our liberties should love the New Deal, which kept us from going down the "course toward Europe," and should worry instead about the national security apparatus.

But for our purposes here we had better ask why right-wing pundits have been so busily seeking to desecrate a dead man’s legacy, like so many pigeons on a monument. Partly, of course, they act in hope of together, over time, achieving the pigeon effect: no single assault matters much, but add them up and they might destroy the statue. But mostly it’s because they worry the party of Roosevelt could return, bringing with it sane extensions of the New Deal--into health care, for example--while providing a responsible strategy for national defense.

If so, the Democratic candidates for President ought to be running, in this anniversary year, as the legatees of the New Deal. At the moment, the front-runner is running from it: there are only a few mentions of the New Deal on Hillary Clinton’s campaign site. Barack Obama and John Edwards do a bit better. But it’s an easy choice to make: between the avian vermin and the guy on the nation’s pedestal, stand by the man who--four times--placed first in the hearts of his countrymen, and whose legacy the American voters still support.

By Eric Rauchway