Trumpets and drums greets Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York as he arrived at his new cottage at Warm Spring, Ga., for a vacation April 30, 1932. He is greeted by a few young members of the Drum and Bugle Corps. of Manchester, Ga.

AP Photo

2020

What Warren and Sanders Get Wrong About FDR

Roosevelt’s biggest New Deal victories came when he tried to work with big business, not when he welcomed “their hatred.”

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Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, and co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ.”

Bernie Sanders has long cited with admiration the most famous lines of a speech given by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his final 1936 reelection rally in Madison Square Garden: “We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” Sanders underscored his affection for this speech, given 83 years ago on Thursday, and its message in a new interview this week with CNBC’s John Harwood. Asked whether he embraced the part in which FDR welcomes their hatred, Sanders affirmed without hesitation, saying, “You can judge a candidate for president by the enemies they have.”

At the beginning of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, her fundraising team similarly linked her political approach to the same FDR quote. And after she repeatedly and eagerly shot back at any Wall Streeter with the temerity to criticize her in the press, several commentators have recently observed that she too welcomes their hatred.

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But although progressives often return to this FDR quote for inspiration and guidance, they neglect to understand the speech’s place in the FDR story. The speech was delivered after the major New Deal reforms were enacted, not before. It’s not an example of how a successful president chose the right enemies and made those reforms happen. Rather, Roosevelt’s turn toward vilification at the close of the 1936 campaign marked the beginning of the end of the New Deal period, when excessive hubris and a diminished appetite for compromise led him to politically disastrous decisions that drove the conservative wing of the Democratic Party into the arms of obstructionist Republicans. Sanders and Warren should look to “I welcome their hatred” not as words to live by, but as a cautionary tale of progressive overreach.

Roosevelt began his presidency, in fact, with a conciliatory approach. “In his first 100 days, he was trying to unify and calm the country, which had been curled up in the fetal position,” Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, said. “So he was not delivering harsh attacks on business at that time.”

Just before Roosevelt’s inauguration in March 1933, when two progressive senators pressed him to nationalize the banks, he responded that wouldn’t be needed because, “I’ve just had every assurance of cooperation from the bankers.” Instead, FDR’s first order of business was stopping a run on the banks by passing legislation that permitted the Federal Reserve to back them up, and authorized the Reconstruction Finance Corp.—a Hoover-era agency—to infuse banks with capital by buying stock.

The bankers weren’t initially as cooperative as Roosevelt hoped. Fearing government control, they hesitated to sell government stock. In September 1933, Reconstruction Finance Corp. Chair Jesse Jones lectured the American Bankers Association: “Be smart for once. Take the government into partnership with you.” Once the bankers realized they needed the certificates of solvency from the Treasury Department to qualify for newly created federal deposit insurance, they took the government’s money. When that money didn’t instantly make all banks solvent, Jones leaned on the Treasury secretary to give certificates to banks that—unbeknownst to the public—were on the bubble. Arthur M. Schlesinger, in The Coming of the New Deal, concluded that Jones’ strategy to give the banks more than $1 billion of capital “saved the banking system.” The banks were begrudging partners, but the Roosevelt strategy was to help them, not hurt them. And Roosevelt later allowed bankers to have seats on the Federal Reserve committee that sets interest rates.

Roosevelt envisioned a grand partnership between business and government to end the Great Depression, and he was willing to compromise to forge it. In the first 100 days, as depicted in H.W. Brands’ Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR addressed Chamber of Commerce members at a dinner event to say he needed their help to end the Great Depression. He told them, “The attainment of that objective depends upon your willingness to cooperate with one another to this ends, and also your willingness to cooperate with the government.”

Roosevelt’s speech was met with huge applause. It helped to persuade business leaders to shape and pass the National Industrial Recovery Act—which empowered federal government and business representatives jointly to write a series of codes dictating wages, prices and workplace standards. The sweeping bill was, noted Alter, “the product of a lot deal making and negotiation” between corporations and labor. The Chamber fought a key provision ensuring that the codes would set minimum wages, limit hours and protect collective bargaining rights. But in the end, the business lobby acquiesced, because it won an exemption of antitrust law allowing businesses to fix prices.

The antitrust concession horrified the progressive populists of the day. “The Democratic Party dies tonight,” thundered Senator Huey Long, “We wrote the platform in which we said we would not emasculate the antitrust laws. … We are now guaranteeing that the antitrust law can be emasculated, that the clothing men can get together, and that the shoe men can get together, and raise the prices of the commodities of industry without anything whatever to take care of the population on the farms.” But business leaders signaled, according to Schlesinger, that they would end their support of the bill if the progressives stripped the antitrust exemption. After a slight modification, permitting price fixing so long as it wasn’t “monopolistic,” the provision stayed in, prompting Senate progressives like Long and “Fighting Bob” La Follette to vote against the final version.

Granted, Roosevelt’s rage against “organized money” in 1936 didn’t come from nowhere. His relationship with the business community frayed over the course of his first term. In 1934, several corporate executives bankrolled the bipartisan yet right-wing American Liberty League, which excoriated the New Deal as creeping socialism. The Chamber of Commerce leaned on Roosevelt to make a public statement ahead of the midterm elections in support of balanced budgets and business profits. Roosevelt partially obliged. While he did not commit to a balanced budget, he did deliver a fireside chat praising “the driving power of individual initiative and the incentive of fair private profit,” and reiterated his support of the “profit system” in a speech to the banking lobby.

Yet by this point, Schlesinger noted, Roosevelt had “given up real hope of the kind of constructive partnership with business he had envisaged.” In March 1935, the Chamber of Commerce, at the prompting of its small-to-medium-size members from outside the big cities, turned against the Recovery Act and announced opposition to an extension of the Recovery Act, as well as several other New Deal proposals. Two months later, the Supreme Court declared the Recovery Act an unconstitutional delegation of power by Congress to the president.

In turn, for the second half of his first term, Roosevelt was far less interested in keeping Big Business happy. During those two years, Roosevelt helped enact some of the lasting legacies of the New Deal, including Social Security, unemployment insurance and the National Labor Relations Act. These victories inform the modern progressive view that corporate power is to be battled, not bargained with.

So FDR didn’t have one gear, which overall served him well. But he sometimes chose the wrong gear. Even in this period of historic achievement, there were warning signs that open warfare with the business community could derail progressive priorities. In 1935, Roosevelt tried to legislatively abolish an oligarchic network of electric utility holding companies. The companies responded viciously, by spreading rumors about Roosevelt’s sanity and orchestrating a fraudulent telegram campaign. The fraud was exposed, but the House was still spooked enough to refuse Roosevelt’s demand. The following year, Roosevelt’s push for a tax on “undistributed” corporate profits was met with fierce, but this time not unethical, resistance, resulting in a watered-down law that ended up getting repealed three years later.

Roosevelt was determined to bring his corporate opponents to heel. In his 1936 Madison Square Garden address, the line that really made mouths drop was not, “I welcome their hatred,” but what came next: “I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.”

“Thoughtful citizens were stunned by the violence, the bombast, the naked demagoguery of these sentences,” wrote former Roosevelt advisor Raymond Moley for a 1939 book in which he turned against the New Deal. Schlesinger reported, in The Politics of Upheaval, that Democrats “begged the President to do something to qualify it,” though Roosevelt did no such thing, and proceeded to win in a landslide.

Progressives may look at the 1936 election returns and conclude, then, that lacerating “organized money” was, and still is, a political winner. But whatever the electoral benefit, it was not paired with legislative benefit.

Moley thought the landslide win itself “carried the seeds of its own defeat” because it produced an “overweening confidence that would blind him to the dangers of his own situation.” FDR biographer Kenneth S. Davis, in FDR Into the Storm: 1937-1940, was more dramatic: “He was brought closer than ever before to an actual identification of himself with the power he wielded as God’s chosen instrument.”

Roosevelt saved the banks and saved capitalism, and few captains of industry thanked Roosevelt for it. Further, as historian Robert Dallek noted in reviewing Davis’ book in the New York Times, Roosevelt was not strictly driven by egotism, but also sincerely motivated to improve the lot of average Americans. Nevertheless, the more Roosevelt sought combat over compromise, the less he signed into law.

Roosevelt wasted much of 1937 trying to pack the Supreme Court, with legislation designed to either expedite retirements or increase the size of the bench, allowing him to remove it as an obstacle to future New Deal legislation. But his proposal was a political disaster, and an unnecessary one: A key Supreme Court justice had already shifted ideologically before Roosevelt issued his proposal. Congress passed a shell of a judicial reform bill, which Roosevelt was forced to swallow. The legislative consequences were devastating to the New Deal. Roosevelt proceeded to compound the problem by trying, and failing, to purge conservative Democrats in the 1938 congressional primaries.

Roosevelt was still able in 1938 to enact legislation resurrecting what was lost in the demise of the Recovery Act—minimum wage, maximum hours and the end of most child labor. And his allies did so through brute political force—using a House discharge petition to circumvent a conservative bottleneck in the Rules Committee. But, as Davis noted, this was “the last of the New Deal’s major social reforms.”

Yes, there were times when Roosevelt was able to stare down corporate opposition, most clearly in the passage of the Social Security Act, which also included the establishment of unemployment insurance. But the New Deal era of legislative reforms began with a harmonious note, and ended on a discordant one. If Roosevelt hadn’t started his presidency with a cooperative spirit, perhaps the banking system would not have been saved, and the Recovery Act would not have, in the words of Schlesinger, “helped break the chains of economic fatalism which had so long bound the nation.” And although the strategy of pivoting away from corporate cooperation made sense for select battles, over time it had diminishing utility.

Sanders and Warren tell a simplistic story in which a superhuman Roosevelt pulverized his oligarchic enemies, to argue such feats of strengths can be replicated today if only we summon the will. Roosevelt, however, was not a simplistic man. As James MacGregor Burns encapsulated him in Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, while Roosevelt had an “inner compass of certainty and rightness” he also had “no fixed convictions about methods and policies, flexible as a broker because he had to mediate among conflicting worlds and experiences.”

Flexibility doesn’t get the blood pumping. Nevertheless, Sanders and Warren should talk more about the pragmatic side of Roosevelt, to help convince skeptical voters that they have learned from the New Dealer’s actual legislative strategies for enacting an ambitious agenda. Maybe you can judge a candidate for president by the enemies they have. But unless a candidate explains how they are going to deal with those enemies, you can’t judge how effective they will be as president.

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