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Tom Daschle is no FDR

By Bruce Walker
web posted May 14, 2001

Recall the cheap shot Lloyd Benson took at Dan Quayle during the 1988 Vice Presidential Debate? Republicans, much to the chagrin of Democrats, are during a good job of pointing out that George Bush talks and acts more John F. Kennedy than any other American in modern history. He seeks to move us ahead to New Frontiers with a spirit of youthful, likeable, exuberant optimism.

When Ronald Reagan was in office, Republicans made the same sort of comparison between these two upbeat Irishmen, a comparison that grew deeper and stronger when the whole world showed in April 1981 just how calmly and bravely the Gipper faced death, recalling Lt. Kennedy and PT 109.

Dubya with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle looking on at right
Dubya with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle looking on at right

Yes, Republicans are much more like Kennedy than Democrats. What, after all, were the hallmarks's of President Kennedy's presidency? Standing tall for peace and freedom through strength and courage. Cutting tax rates as a way of encouraging our most productive citizens to work harder and better. Can anyone imagine John Kennedy being happy with the pasty, craven, forked tongues of Democrats today?

But there is another Democrat icon who also looks remarkably like President Bush and today's Republicans: Franklin Roosevelt. This goes deeper than the Republican Convention sloganeering of "They have nothing to offer but fear itself." Think for a moment what FDR stood for in his twelve years in office? What did he offer that was so appealing to young screen actor Ronald Reagan?

First, he believed that evil in the world must be resisted with strong military forces. He pushed, kidded, and threatened Congress into building up America's national defense. While the evils he most strongly opposed -- Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan -- are in the dustbin of history now, FDR clearly understood that the globe is divided into good guys and bad guys, and that the good guys need to always win. Simple enough stuff, but how many Democrats today believe that or espouse that?

Second, he believed in optimism. This sounds corny, because it is corny, but he believed in the core greatness of America. His construction of a vast social welfare system was not in America's best long term interest, but FDR knew that others after him would carry the torch and lead the nation. Like Ronald Reagan and like George W. Bush, Franklin Roosevelt very much liked Americans, and it showed. That is why people so liked him (and President Reagan and our current Chief Executive).

Third, he was not afraid to experiment. This, more than anything else, separates FDR from the Democrat Party of the last twenty years. Franklin Roosevelt, like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, understood that the American experience is very much an experiment.

During the early days of the New Deal, when new alphabet agencies proliferated, what was FDR's response to his critics? It was not "Everything is perfect. Nothing needs to change." It was rather "We will keep trying things until we find what works." FDR never claimed to be smart enough to have all the answers. He simply claimed to be bold enough to take risks in the knowledge that the American people would accept failure much more readily than cowardice. Does this sound like any political figure on the stage today? Let's try something different, something better, for those dependent upon the Social Security System. Let's see what works best in our educational system. Let's give private charities a chance to solve drug and alcohol problems. Let's try to build a system to stop nuclear missiles.

Did any American President have more "risky schemes" than Franklin Roosevelt? Well, George W. Bush may give FDR a run at that title! Democrats today would doubtless have called the Manhattan Project a "risky scheme" just as they call the Missile Defense System. They would have opposed changing anything during the Depression, because all serious change is a "risky scheme."

What did Franklin Roosevelt do which the Supreme Court? Why, he tried to appoint Justices who had his vision for America! How awful! What was his attitude towards domestic programs? Let's see if it works or not -- won't know until we try. How...risky! It is a tribute to the morbid nature of modern liberalism that there is not a smidgen of light from the left.

FDR, for better or worse, wanted political power for precisely the same reasons as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush: To use that power to make the lives of Americans happy and hopeful. Were many of his ideas proven wrong by experience? Yes, they were. But only the narrowest, Marxist ideologue can predict exactly how people will interact when things start to change. Conservatives look at what actually happens, and judge accordingly. We don't bemoan expenditures to innoculate children from disease, provide reasonable public education, build highways, inspect meat, or provide sensible financial protection from unavoidable hardships. But that is not because these ideas looked good on paper, but rather because experience has proved they work.

Tom Daschle and his pals in the Senate -- who stand astride any efforts to try something different for America -- differ fundamentally from FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan, and President Bush. These Democrats know exactly what will fail before it is even tried. Tom Daschle is no FDR; he is the high clergy of a secular dogma, immune to experience and terrified of change.

I think that President Bush will be able to portrayed this dried up, tight faced, old women for just what they are (my apologies to the fair sex for making a point!) What images do Reagan, Kennedy, and FDR present to us -- whatever our political opinion? Good will. Cheerfulness. Confidence. That wins political battles, and that wins policy wars. And we are winning.

Bruce Walker is a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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