We Can Learn A Lot From Roosevelt And Truman
The Republican Party is very good at messaging and winning elections — and is terrible at governing. Conversely, the Democrats are a mixed bag when it comes to messaging but we’re very good at governing. What that means is we Democrats have lost elections that we should have won. We lost elections in 2000 and 2016 after very successful two term presidencies because — in part- we didn’t take credit for our successes and the GOP had better campaign themes.
GOP candidates win elections by pretending to be moderates and relying upon voter amnesia. Jeff Fortenberry’s 2018 re-election campaign is a perfect example of this phenomenon. In the closing days of the election cycle, Fortenberry ran a television ad falsely claiming he supported pre-existing condition protections even though he voted to eliminate them over sixty times. Fortenberry was running as a faux moderate and counting on voter amnesia.
The Republicans are also very good at marketing their support for socialism for the rich and rugged capitalism for everybody else. They use soothing rhetoric that employs appealing buzz phrases like “freedom” and “liberty” to mask their support for deficit funded tax cuts for the rich and the deregulation of big banks and polluters. The reality is that the GOP’s vision of freedom only applies to big business, the wealthy and the owners of war weapons.
Franklin Roosevelt brilliantly exposed the Republicans’ bogus version of “freedom” in his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic Convention:
“An old English judge once said: “Necessitous men are not free men.” Liberty requires opportunity to make a living — a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.
For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor — other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.
Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government.
Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.”
Eight years later, Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented fourth term during the height of World War II and in a time of full employment. By 1944, the economy had been steadily improving for eleven years and the Great Depression was in the rear view window. In this cycle, the Republicans falsely presented themselves as moderates and blamed the Democrats for the Great Depression. You can’t make this stuff up.
Roosevelt eviscerated these false GOP claims in his famous “Fala” speech of September 23, 1944:
“ The whole purpose of Republican oratory these days seems to be to switch labels. The object is to persuade the American people that the Democratic Party was responsible for the 1929 crash and the depression, and that the Republican Party was responsible for all social progress under the New Deal.
Now, imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery — but I am afraid that in this case it is the most obvious common or garden variety of fraud.
Can the Old Guard pass itself off as the New Deal? I think not.
We have all seen many marvelous stunts in the circus but no performing elephant could turn a hand-spring without falling flat on his back.
The opposition in this year has already imported into this campaign a very interesting thing, because it is foreign. They have imported the propaganda technique invented by the dictators abroad. Remember, a number of years ago, there was a book, Mein Kampf, written by Hitler himself. The technique was all set out in Hitler’s book — and it was copied by the aggressors of Italy and Japan. According to that technique, you should never use a small falsehood; always a big one, for its very fantastic nature would make it more credible — if only you keep repeating it over and over and over again.”
Harry Truman’s 1948 speech to the Democratic Convention echoed similar themes. In this speech, Truman cited the economic progress the American people had made since 1933. At the same time — like FDR — he blamed GOP policies for the Great Depression: “The situation in 1932 was due to the policies of the Republican Party control of the Government of the United States. The Republican Party, as I said a while ago, favors the privileged few and not the common everyday man. Ever since its inception, that party has been under the control of special privilege.”
Unfortunately, we Democrats sometimes have neglected to follow FDR and Truman’s example and we have all paid a price for it. When Al Gore ran for President in 2000, the economy was booming and we were running our first budget surpluses in decades. Yet Gore ran away from Bill Clinton and his accomplishments — he almost pretended that Clinton didn’t exist. Nor did Gore mention the mess that he and President Clinton inherited from the Republicans.
As we all know, Barack Obama inherited a collapsing economy and two mismanaged foreign wars from Bush. When Obama took office, the economy was losing 800,000 jobs per month. The Republicans responded to the Democratic landslides of 2006 and 2008 by “morphing” into the Tea Party and pretending that George W. Bush never existed. The media passed on to the public the canard that the Tea Party was brand new even though it was still the same old reactionary GOP.
In subsequent election cycles during Obama’s presidency, we Democrats once again neglected to follow Roosevelt and Truman’s game plan. In 2010, Obama was unfairly blamed for the Bush recession and bank bailout. By 2016, unemployment and been cut in half and the economy was creating over 200,000 jobs per month but we didn’t run on our accomplishments.
In some future cycle in the near future, we will face a GOP recession and the absence of Donald Trump. The GOP will claim they never really supported Trump and pretend — like George W. Bush — that he never existed. As former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote: “When this is all over, nobody will admit to ever having supported it.”
We as Democrats need to bring back FDR and Truman’s game plan and remind the voters again and again that the Democrats are much better for the economy and the American people. As Harry Truman said: “The only new thing in the world is the history you do not know.”