Saturday, August 12, 2006

Lessons from Franklin Roosevelt

In the past, liberals have sometimes tried to do too much and have gotten burned. On the other hand, some moderate Democrats get so cautious that they sometimes fail to show much leadership on the issues.

I've been reading a book on FDR by Richard Thayer Goldberg called, The Making of Franklin D. Roosevelt. I found this interesting passage on pages 124-125 talking about unemployment insurance; in it, Eleanor Roosevelt notes a philosophical connection between Franklin Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt:
Progressive labor leaders in New York had been discussing the need for unemployment insurance for many years. Advocates of progressive legislation from the Consumer's League, the League of Women Voters, the Women's City Club, the American Association for Labor Legislation, and the Women's Trade Union League united in support of unemployment studies.

In the winter of 1931 [during the Great Depression] Molly Dewson decided the time was opportune to call up the governor [FDR]. She wrote to Eleanor to ask whether she could see her when she came to New York. "As I drover her through the congested district, I said I wished Roosevelt would make unemployment compensation one of his major objectives. She said, 'I will speak to Franklin about it. I do not know whether he will consider it wise to take on another measure. He agrees with Uncle Teddie that, although a man can be ahead of his constituency on a couple of objectives and still be their leader, if he gets in advance of them at too many points, he ceases to be their leader and becomes separated from them.'"

If Americans understood how many issues Bush is out in front of them on (in a negative direction, one could argue), they would break with him. One of the things Bush has done effectively is hide how much he has been doing. And Democrats have not been effective at spotlighting Bush's reckless radicalism.

But let's go back to liberal and moderate Democrats. Liberal politicians in this era have lacked the public relations machinery of the Republicans and have had to be careful what issues to choose; one could argue they're too careful (though people are now finding ways to get their message out). But liberals are not nearly as cautious as moderates who are shy about leading on such easy and obvious issues as the incompetence of George W. Bush or the need to reform the corruption that is making Congress next to useless. The bottom-line is that Democrats are watching the polls too closely. The lesson of Roosevelt is that it's possible to get out in front of the nation on one or two issues regardless of the polls if the message is clear and reasonable and constantly put out. This is in addition to the issues on which Americans already tend to agree on with Democrats.

I'm not going to summarize all the candidates, but quickly, liberal Russ Feingold and moderate John Edwards are two politicians of late who have a knack of getting out in front of the crowd on one or two issues that may well prove winnable. Edwards and Howard Dean are two politicians learning how to get their messages out (Edwards is flying under the media radar somewhat at the moment but he's reaching a great many people). On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is an example of a poll watcher rather than a leader on issues; if the polls shift, she cautiously shifts while trying hard to remain consistent on her positions (there are signs she's finally realizing that she can't remain a poll watcher much longer and be credible as a presidential candidate).

I'll try to come back and say more on this.


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