Political analysts and historians compare campaigns and elections to uncover likenesses and differences between candidates, issues and election results. We may not agree with their assessments or conclusions but they are useful and interesting nonetheless. As we watch President Obama prepare for the upcoming election, it is notable for similarities faced by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Both were faced with debt, financial and unemployment crises of huge dimensions. Public angst in both eras was escalating.
A seldom mentioned event of the 1932 Roosevelt campaign deserves attention. It magnifies the differences in how two different personalities approach problems. With the election only days away, candidate Roosevelt was closing down his race for office with a speech in Baltimore. The huge, overflow audience at the Armory expected a verbal blast and were not disappointed.
“I am waging a war in this campaign, a frontal attack against the Four Horsemen of the present Republican leadership — the horsemen of Destruction, Delay, Deceit, Despair.” Roosevelt named some of the parties responsible for the sad state of affairs. “Let’s see who is responsible for that failure. After March 4, 1929 — Hoover’s Inauguration Day — the Republican Party was in complete control of all branches of the federal government — the Executive, the Senate, the House of Representatives and, I might add for good measure, to make it complete, the Supreme Court as well.”
Naturally, there was uproar because of the association of the four horsemen of the apocalypse with the failures of a political party. Then, too, more heat was generated about the charge that the Supreme Court was at the call of Republican overlords.
One glaring difference between the two candidates is their style in explaining their programs. Obama is an incurable centrist who is moderate in temperament and overly ready to compromise. He still thinks he can play golf with Speaker of the House John Boehner and charm him into concessions in legislation. This is not going to happen.
When we look at the similarities of the two periods, such as the composition of the Supreme Court, it is quite clear that both courts were dominated by conservative justices who reflected Republican values. In both courts, there were many 5-4 decisions. In addition, the conservative majority in both periods would have accepted what has become known as the “originalist” doctrine, which asserts that judges are ideologically committed to judge as they suppose the original writers of the Constitution would judge on constitutional issues.
Still another similarity are the charges made by the opposition party about who should carry the blame for the crisis and what were the causes of the economic failure. Roosevelt’s list, given in Baltimore, is a suitable start. The deterioration of the nation’s infrastructure and the decay of its many factories was the “destruction” of our resources then and now. The votes against stimulus plans contribute to the “delay” of recovery. The continuous hiding behind the debt as an excuse to avoid remediation is “deceit.” “Despair” is the predictable consequence of such an unfortunate combination of events.
A regrettable difference is the current splintering of the Republican Party into a moderate wing and a dominant extremist wing called the tea party. They exercise enough power to pull the party toward a much more radical posture. Older citizens can remember the day when the two major parties — while holding different opinions — made thoughtful concessions in order to advance the interests of this nation. This spirit of mutual respect and conciliation does not now exist.
The present aggregate of flawed candidates compete with each other in who can make the most ridiculous statement of the day. It is a breach of honesty for the leadership of the Republican Party to endorse several of them as credible, qualified contestants for the presidency. One was so absurd as to assert that Social Security was a Ponzi scam. A Ponzi scheme, by its nature, is a secret device to cheat others. There is nothing about Social Security that is secret or deceitful. It is transparent and capable of being altered by public demand.
It comes down to this: While there are likenesses and differences between the two campaigns, 1932 and 2012, the most significant difference is in who is leading the relief, recovery and reform efforts. Roosevelt took for granted that he would face relentless opposition. He relished the combat and exuded optimism about the prospect of victory.
Barack Obama is a reluctant warrior who wants to parley with those who are bent on his defeat. Hopefully, he will alter his style in time to convince enough voters that he is the master of the four horsemen with their unwanted evils. A Rooseveltian flair would serve him well.
Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.
Allan Powell: A story in parallel politics - 1932 and 2012
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