It worked for FDR

James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn teach at Williams College. They are coauthors of "The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America" and "George Washington."

‘Do you wish to win for yourself the undesirable title of the 4-P’s Candidate: Pusillanimously-Pussyfooting-Pious-Platitudinous Roosevelt?” wrote a Harvard friend to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, imploring him to forthrightly address the crucial issues of the day. But Roosevelt had chosen a different -- and safer -- game plan. From the very beginning of his quest for the presidency in 1931, he purposefully sought to be elusive, vague and to appear to be all things to all people.

Seventy-five years later, a chorus of political commentators -- and fellow Democratic presidential candidates -- are lashing out at Hillary Rodham Clinton, accusing her of the very same tactic of evasion. She straddles, practices “systematic caution” and plays “dodge ball,” they charge. Her critics demand that she be more candid and genuine.

That is a sensible and astute formula -- for losing elections.


Roosevelt, the only American president to win four terms in office, campaigned as a supreme waffler in 1932 -- and by doing so he beat incumbent Herbert Hoover and set the stage for the transformation of American society and government.

FDR saw the Democratic Party for what it was: an amorphous association representing a wide variety of competing interests. To win the presidential nomination, he needed to keep on board an improbable mix of Eastern liberals, Western reformers, labor leaders, internationalists, Wall Street financiers and Southern states’ rights conservatives and white supremacists. So evasive was he that one columnist dubbed him “the corkscrew candidate.”

After securing the nomination over several now-forgotten Democrats, his strategy in the general election remained the same: to appeal to as wide and inclusive a swath of the American public as possible, to Democrats, progressives, independents and moderate Republicans.

Both Roosevelt and Hoover confronted a numbed, stricken nation, where millions of battered Americans -- 25% of the country -- were out of work, standing morosely in long bread lines, sleeping under frayed newspapers on streets lined with empty storefronts.

Hoover rejected government action to help the jobless and needy. Instead, he passively passed the buck to the people, expressing confidence in their ability to “work out the cure” to the nation’s economic hardships.


Roosevelt didn’t go much further. Once state governments and charitable organizations such as Community Chests had done everything in their power to help the poor, he told audiences, only then should the federal government step in as a last resort. The two candidates often seemed to be speaking each other’s lines.

Only once during the campaign did FDR stray from that bland course. In a speech in Georgia, he warned that millions of desperate people “will not stand silently by forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.” Was a gutsy Roosevelt raising the specter of mass revolt? Frantic that Roosevelt had committed a major gaffe in a flawless campaign, close advisor Louis Howe insisted that his boss tone down his message.

As the campaign drew to a close, Roosevelt improbably assailed Hoover for “reckless and extravagant spending” and urged that government spending be cut by 25%.

Roosevelt’s cagey strategy paid off. He swept the nation, carrying 42 states -- only Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Vermont went Republican. The GOP lost 12 seats in the Senate and more than 100 seats in the House, giving control of both chambers to the Democrats. A sea change had taken place. And the presidential candidate who had suggested severe budget cuts would go on to spend billions -- a lot of money in the 1930s -- for huge relief and public-works programs.

The task of uniting Democrats may seem less daunting today than in 1932 because the Southern conservatives FDR needed to keep on board have mostly left the party. But just substitute for them antiabortion, anti-gun control, anti-free-trade and anti-immigration Democrats, and it’s apparent that for Clinton or anyone else, the path to victory is, in fact, across a delicate political tightrope.