Democratic Heretics Would FDR, Truman, JFK, or LBJ be nominated by their party today?


The never-ending Democratic attempt to resurrect the strategy that destroyed Barry Goldwater in 1964—he’s an extremist, don’t you know—rolls on, with liberals and the media trying to tar the Republican party as an “ideological outlier” in American politics.

here are three legs to this rickety barstool of an argument. One is the pseudo-social science findings of Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann that congressional Republican voting records have lurched sharply to the right in recent years (though it is not obvious why this should be badnews). The second is the populism of the Tea Party, which, to be sure, is a disruptive force in the Republican party much as the anti-Vietnam war movement was a disruptive force in the Democratic party in the late 1960s and 1970s. The wobbliest leg of the triad is the argument, unfortunately abetted by Jeb Bush, that the GOP has become too extreme even for Ronald Reagan.

The use and abuse of Reagan has been going on for a while now, but the claim that Reagan could not be nominated by today’s GOP takes absurdity to a new level. You really need a poker face to suggest that the party that, since 1988, has nominated two Bushes, Bob Dole, John McCain, and now Mitt Romney would find Reagan insufficiently conservative. And Reagan would surely delight in the stronger ideological composition of the House GOP caucus today. One unappreciated aspect of Reagan’s diary is how often he expressed disappointment with congressional Republicans who ran for the tall grass on tough votes. Reagan complained about weak-kneed Republicans in his diary almost as often as he did about Democrats and the media. “We had rabbits when we needed tigers,” was a frequent lament. Today’s Tea Party-influenced GOP caucus would gladden the Gipper’s heart.

Rather than try to make Reagan out as too moderate for an extreme party, the decriers of “extremism” ought to give a hard look at Democratic presidents who couldn’t get the nomination of today’s Democratic party, starting with one who actually didn’t get it: Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. Despite delivering the most substantial liberal reforms since the New Deal (the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare, the War on Poverty, etc.), LBJ was on his way to losing renomination when he withdrew. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan memorably put it, Johnson “was the first American president to be toppled by a mob. No matter that it was a mob of college professors, millionaires, flower children, and Radcliffe girls”—in other words, what Democrats today call “the base.”

Four years later, the protest wing of the Democratic party was in the saddle and delivered the nomination to George McGovern. Whatever similarity might be discerned between the Tea Party and the antiwar movement, the Tea Party has not remade the Republican party in anything like the way the New Left remade the Democrats, or else Ron Paul or Herman Cain would be the nominee instead of Mitt Romney.

LBJ is only the first of many supposedly liberal heroes who would be unacceptable to the liberal base today. Start with Franklin Roosevelt. Despite his New Deal programs, he piled up a considerable record of statements that would be anathema to contemporary liberal orthodoxy. “The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me,” he told Congress in 1935, “show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief .  .  . is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” A liberal can’t talk about our welfare state that way today.

FDR opposed public employee unions. In a 1937 letter to a public employees’ association, FDR wrote: “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. .  .  . Militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees.”

FDR, an Episcopalian, made the kind of remarks about religion that send the American Civil Liberties Union into paroxysms of rage when someone like George W. Bush or Sarah Palin says the same thing today. During World War II, FDR wrote a preface for an edition of the New Testament that was distributed to American troops: “As Commander-in-Chief, I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States.” On the eve of the 1940 election, FDR said in a campaign radio address: “Freedom of speech is of no use to a man who has nothing to say and freedom of worship is of no use to a man who has lost his God.” Today, the left-wing fever swamps would call this “Christianism.”

Environmentalists would stoutly oppose FDR because of his massive public works projects, such as the giant habitat-destroying dams on the Columbia River and in the Tennessee Valley. The car-haters of the left decry FDR for promoting urban sprawl and road-building. Historian James Flink wrote, “The American people could not have done worse in 1932 had they deliberately set out to elect a president who was ignorant of the implications of the automobile revolution.”

FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, would fare no better with today’s Democrats. True, he was pro-labor, pro-civil rights, and pro-health care reform, but he was also pro-Israel and above all pro-American. He embraced biblical morality. He was a moralistic anti-Communist. He had no trouble understanding the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” He routinely referred to Soviet Communists as “barbarians.” While a senator, he raised hackles in 1941 when he said that in the event of war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the United States might want to aid whichever side was losing so the two tyrannies would fight each other to the death—a remark that the Soviets remembered and resented. Clearly Truman would not last long in the faculty lounges of today’s Democratic party.

Perhaps no act of Truman’s generated more enduring liberal hostility than his decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring World War II to a swift and sure end. Next to this, LBJ’s Vietnam bombing seems like a botched no-knock raid. While Truman wrote in his diary that the decision to use the bomb was “my hardest decision to date,” he went to bed and slept soundly the night after he gave the order to use it to end the war. Liberals have never forgiven him for it, and it seems Barack Obama actually wanted to visit Hiroshima on his 2009 “world apology tour.” It required the intervention of Japan’s vice foreign minister to head off this insult to Japan’s honor.

Truman’s religious faith has tended to be overlooked by his many biographers. He spoke frequently of the providential mission of the United States, in terms that would find their most distinct echo in Ronald Reagan 30 years later. “God has created us and brought us to our present position of power and strength for some great purpose,” Truman said in a speech in 1951, and that great purpose was defending “the spiritual values—the moral code—against the vast forces of evil that seek to destroy them.” In a 1950 speech, Truman was more direct: “Communism attacks our main basic values, our belief in God, our belief in the dignity of man and the value of human life, our belief in justice and freedom. It attacks the institutions that are based on these values. It attacks our churches, our guarantees of civil liberty, our courts, our democratic form of government.” “To succeed in our quest for righteousness,” Truman said elsewhere, “we must, in St. Paul’s luminous phrase, put on the armor of God.”

Finally, there is John F. Kennedy, whose mystique still sets Democratic hearts fluttering. But his views would make him completely unacceptable to Democrats today; as it was, liberals in 1960 were deeply suspicious of him. He was notably cautious on civil rights, and often fretted that the civil rights movement would be politically damaging to him. While much of his voting record in Congress on economic issues followed the main Democratic party line—higher minimum wage and pro-union—Kennedy did not embrace redistributionism or trade protectionism. To the contrary, he believed that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Rather than adopt Keynesian-style government spending like FDR or Obama today, Kennedy proposed significant reductions in income tax rates. In a 1961 speech, Kennedy argued that “it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now. .  .  . The purpose of cutting taxes now is not to incur a budget deficit, but to achieve the more prosperous, expanding economy which can bring a budget surplus.” (Emphasis added.) John Kenneth Galbraith mocked JFK’s speech, calling it “the most Republican speech since McKinley.” Galbraith also warned, “Once we start encouraging the economy with tax cuts, it would sooner or later become an uncontrollable popular measure with conservatives.” He was right; 20 years later, Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and other “supply-siders” pointed to Kennedy’s example, much to the dismay and outrage of liberals.

Kennedy was also an ardent free-trader, which also would make him an outcast among today’s liberals, who mainly favor protectionism and resist free trade. He lowered tariffs on a number of products and sponsored a new round of international trade talks aimed at lowering trade barriers around the globe.

So there are four supposed heroes of the Democratic party who would have “a hard time” (as Jeb Bush said of Reagan) gaining the Democratic nomination today, but somehow it is the Republicans, enjoying their highest watermark in 80 years in terms of the number of elected officials on all levels, who are said to have a problem with being “out of the mainstream.”

Isn’t this what psychologists call “projection”?

Steven F. Hayward is the author of The Age of Reagan and The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents: From Wilson to Obama. He blogs at

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