Friday, September 4, 2009

The great divider

I read his biography of FDR , and quite liked it. Now he has a few smart words to say about the 44th US president, and, of course about the 32nd.

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S apparent readiness to backtrack on the public insurance option in his health care package is not just a concession to his political opponents — this fixation on securing bipartisan support for health care reform suggests that the Democratic Party has forgotten how to govern and the White House has forgotten how to lead.

Is it possible they wanted the Republicans and other opponents to gain enough traction that at some future point the White House could point to the intyrasigence of the opposition as a reason for the failure of its campaign? Look, they might say, we tried, but the opponents of change wouldn't let us win. We'll try again.

This was not true of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congresses that enacted the New Deal. With the exception of the Emergency Banking Act of 1933 (which gave the president authority to close the nation’s banks and which passed the House of Representatives unanimously), the principal legislative innovations of the 1930s were enacted over the vigorous opposition of a deeply entrenched minority. Majority rule, as Roosevelt saw it, did not require his opponents’ permission.

Allowing Congress to shape the proposals for health care reform was seen as a means to avoid the mistakes of the Clintons presidency, wherein they formulated the health care reform proposal and presented it to the Congress as a formulated bill; yet allowing the opposition frame the debate about health care reform was a critical mistake. Now the White House must not only refine the Congressional proposals, but regain the momentum on the debate, by, in great part, derailing the vehement opposition to anything with the name Obama attached to it.

In forming the TVA, creating the SEC, in getting the Glass-Steagall Act passed, Professor Smith states, FDR "did not consult with utility giants like Commonwealth and Southern ... did not request the cooperation of those about to be regulated ... did not need the approval of J. P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers."

When FDR "took the country off the gold standard," had the AAA and CCC created, he did so "over the heated opposition of many of the nation’s wealthy ... over the fierce opposition of the nation’s food processors ... was fought tooth and nail by organized labor ... despite the vociferous opposition of American business." He took everybody on, because he saw his program as what was best for the country.

Social Security became law over the ideological objections of those who believed that government was best which governed least and that individuals should fend for themselves or rely on charity.

Sound familiar? Governed least: Reaganomics. Hooverism. Same crap, same ideological claptrap, same ineffective, unjust, and bad policy.

Roosevelt relished the opposition of vested interests. He fashioned his governing majority by deliberately attacking those who favored the status quo. His opponents hated him — and he profited from their hatred. “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” he told a national radio audience on the eve of the 1936 election. “They are unanimous in their hatred for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

He took them on. Now the White House is trying to finesse the opposition, head fake it.

Roosevelt sought consensus among his fellow Democrats, which is why he sometimes kowtowed to the Southern oligarchs who were the chairmen of Congressional committees. But his Republican opponents were relegated to the political equivalent of Siberia. Roosevelt rode up Pennsylvania Avenue with President Herbert Hoover to the inauguration in March 1933, but he never saw or spoke to him again — not even in World War II.

Just what is wrong with partisanship? The Republicans are partisan, the Democrats talk about partisanship, and get called out by the Republicans for not practicing it.

For Roosevelt was a divider, not a uniter, and he unabashedly waged class war. At the Democratic Convention in 1936, again speaking to a national radio audience, Roosevelt lambasted the “economic royalists” who had gained control of the nation’s wealth. To Congress he boasted of having “earned the hatred of entrenched greed.” In another speech he mocked “the gentlemen in well-warmed and well-stocked clubs” who criticized the government’s relief efforts.

And he was himself a patrician: came from old money, smoked cigarettes with a holder, spoke with a patrician accent. Many called him a traitor to his class.

Roosevelt hived off the nation’s economic elite to win the support of the rest of the country. The vast majority of voters rallied to the president, but for a small minority he was the Devil incarnate. Few today remember the extent to which Roosevelt divided the nation.

My old friend Bob railed against FDR as if Roosevelt had been president a few years back, not half a century earlier.

The sense of unity wrought by World War II blurred the divisiveness of the 1930s. Also, Roosevelt endeavored to ensure that more than half of the country was always on his side. Finally, and most important perhaps, the measures he championed have stood the test of time. It is difficult for Americans today to comprehend how anyone could have opposed Social Security, rural electrification, the regulation of Wall Street or the federal government’s guarantee of individual bank deposits.

Republicans also opposed Medicare: they are, in the least consistent, always opposing what is good for the common folk, supporting the wealthy and corporate interests, yet couching their arguments as opposing collectivism, socialism, enslavement of the people by government. And a lot of people buy that stuff.

Trying to imagine no FDIC insurance around the time that Lehman imploded is difficult, but not impossible.

Roosevelt understood that governing involved choice and that choice engendered dissent. He accepted opposition as part of the process. It is time for the Obama administration to step up to the plate and make some hard choices.

Yes, indeed. The Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress; well, they occupy the houses. Time to get cracking, craft and pass legislation, and let the opposition howl. Continue to howl: the right wing is bandying about a lot of terms of insult: Nazis, Socialists, death panels.

Health care reform enacted by a Democratic majority is still meaningful reform. Even if it is passed without Republican support, it would still be the law of the land.

President Obama has power; I wish he'd use it.

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