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 The One and Only 

May 13, 2003

“Why They Don’t Make Democrats Like They Used To (And How to Fix It),” announces the cover of Time magazine. Illustrating it is the iconic profile photo of Franklin Roosevelt, beaming at the crowd with his quaint hat, pince-nez, and cigarette holder in the party’s happier days. He looks invincible, the Joe Louis of American politics.

What a contrast with today’s lineup of Democratic presidential hopefuls: Kerry, Edwards, Dean, Graham, Gephardt, Lieberman, et cetera. Drab, mediocre, transparently ambitious party hacks.

In the featured article, writer Joe Klein counsels them to emulate Roosevelt by following this three-step program: (1) “Recapture the flag”; (2) “Lose the frown”; and (3) “Kill the consultants.” They need bold themes, uttered with conviction: “Speak your minds, dream a little, tell people some truths they don’t want to hear. Get angry. Be funny. But, above all, provide a real alternative.”

Exciting stuff! Is your heart pounding yet? Sounds like the advice Al Gore was trying so hard to take, with his earth tones, his Alpha Male lessons, and his soul kiss with Tipper. He got a personality transplant, but his body rejected it.

Roosevelt was a political genius of the sort who comes along once in a century, and I don’t mean that as an unambiguous compliment. He combined the skills of public demagogue and back-room Machiavelli. Above all, he capitalized on the moment. He turned the Great Depression to his advantage; he won the support of millions of immigrants who had begun to vote, with only a feeble grasp of the American political tradition; and he was the first president to exploit the mass media. That was his own three-step program.

[Breaker quote: FDR's unrepeatable genius]The conditions Roosevelt brilliantly used to advantage don’t exist today. And even if they did, today’s Democrats wouldn’t know what to do with them. The country is prospering now, and Americans are more afraid of rocking the boat than of any wolf at the door. They don’t feel the need of a national savior.

Roosevelt could appeal to immigrants and minorities without the open favoritism that could cost him votes in the white Protestant heartland. Today’s Democrats, in the era of divisive “diversity” and “affirmative action,” have to walk a tightrope.

The media have changed too. In Roosevelt’s day the dominant medium was radio, and it might have been designed just for him. He had a fine voice, a gift for words, a warm and charming personality, a keen sense of what people wanted to hear. His “Fireside Chats” made him a presence in the American home, filling countless living rooms with his comforting presence.

Television simply doesn’t have a comparable magic, and only Ronald Reagan, among presidential candidates, has ever really mastered it — though not quite as powerfully as Roosevelt mastered radio. Nor would Roosevelt have been as effective on television. He came along at just the right time; it was the perfect meeting of man and medium. Not only was he very lucky in this respect; he knew just how to make the most of his luck.

Roosevelt was even lucky in his setbacks. If the U.S. Supreme Court hadn’t struck down his more ambitious, Fascist-style programs, the country might never have recovered from the Depression, and his reputation today might be very different. As it was, he did manage to impose his Social Security program, a perennial burden on the American economy that only becomes heavier with shifting demographics. This is nevertheless reckoned one of his great achievements.

Such costly “achievements” have set a perverse precedent for later presidents. Lyndon Johnson gave us Medicare, thus adding to our everlasting budget woes; Bill Clinton tried to give us national health care, but fortunately failed. A free economy can only absorb so much without being choked off. And such programs, however destructive, are nearly impossible to repeal. They merely become lasting problems that can never be solved.

Roosevelt’s real legacy is one of bad habits of governance. Luckily for America, there was only one Franklin Roosevelt, and he is not likely to be repeated. The current Democratic contenders are lesser figures facing lesser opportunities. No formula or three-step program will enable them to duplicate his astounding success, or his appalling impact on American history.

No, they don’t make Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt anymore. But they never did make another. He was the one and only. And thank God for that!

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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