To a lot of people today, Franklin Roosevelt is emblematic of the progressive movement. He and his legacy embodies the bold strides that solidified the progressive movement and brought America out of the Depression with a jaunty wave of his cigarette holder and such great New Deals as Social Security. But as Steve Benen reminds us, that’s not exactly how it happened.
In 1935, FDR accepted all kinds of concessions, excluding agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, the entire public sector, and railroad employees, among others. And why did the president go along with this? Because Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to cut deals with conservatives, even in his own party — many of whom were motivated by nothing more than racism — in order to get the legislation passed.
When delivering red-meat speeches in public, FDR saw his Republican critics and “welcomed their hatred.” When governing, FDR made constant concessions — even if it meant occasionally betraying his principles and some of his own supporters — in order to get something done.
Steve was making his point to show how President Obama has to compromise, often at the risk of alienating his base, in order to get something done. But that is also the case with any president. Republicans are loathe to admit it, but Ronald Reagan compromised with the Democrats on his budget cuts, including raising taxes eleven times during his two terms. (If you need a more contemporary example, look at the way the Minnesota budget deadlock is playing out. Neither side is happy, and it looks like it could all blow up at any time.)
That’s how the world works, and even though everyone would like to remember their history as favoring their recollection and place both FDR and Mr. Reagan on Mount Rushmore, it might be a good idea to remember that the men that are already enshrined there were great not because they stood their ground but because they knew that only by working with their opposition could they get anything done.