FDR has already tried to purge disloyal Democrats – would it work for Biden to do the same?

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Allan Lichtman is used to accurately predicting presidential elections and is generally a keen observer of the American political scene. So I paid attention when Lichtman, professor of political science at the American University, told me that it would be disastrous for President Biden to go to war against Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and the other centrist Democrats who l ‘trained in Congress.

Lichtman was fully aware that progressives were keen to purge the obstructionist Democrats, or at least to punish them in some way or another for restricting or defeating Biden’s legislative agenda. I had already spoken to a historian – Harvey J. Kaye, editor of “FDR on Democracy” – who concisely summed up the logic behind this point of view.

“Look, there are two choices,” Kaye said. “For the future, he should literally pursue them, period.” His “them” clearly referred to Manchin and Sinema. “But for the sake of democracy in the short term, what if the Republicans win?” Kaye added that he couldn’t understand “why Biden didn’t call Manchin” and the others and told them that their political survival depended on respecting the line.

In my conversation with Lichtman, he quoted the famous joke of comedian Will Rogers: “I do not belong to any organized party. I am a democrat. Kaye basically said the same thing. President turns against lawmakers in his own party: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to purge right-wing Democrats in the 1938 midterm election. My main question was what lessons Biden could learn from this moment, given that his own presidency could collapse because of hardline “moderate” Democrats.

FDR was certainly not the first Democratic president to turn against members of his own party. In 1918, Woodrow Wilson campaigned against five Southern lawmakers who opposed his World War I policies, and only one of them actually defeated his Wilson-backed challenger. But that was another time, when the chaos of the Democratic Party led to an ideological vacuum. Instead of trying to fill that void, Wilson eliminated politicians who opposed him on a specific set of policies widely supported by both sides. So there is no clear parallel with Biden in 2021.


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Roosevelt’s situation was at least somewhat similar. He explicitly wanted the 1938 midterm elections to realign the Democratic Party in a more liberal direction. Addressing the nation in a “Fireside Chat” on June 24, Roosevelt described the upcoming primaries as containing “numerous clashes between two schools of thought, generally classified as liberal and conservative.” The Liberals have recognized “that the new conditions in the world call for new remedies,” he said, while the Tories “fail to recognize the need for the government itself to step in and take action to solve these new problems “. Fearing that obstructionist members of Congress could roll back his achievements in creating unemployment insurance, old age pensions, anti-monopoly measures and financial industry regulation, Roosevelt accused them of wanting a comeback ” to the kind of government we had in the 1920s. ” He didn’t need to remind his listeners that these policies had plunged America into the Great Depression. According to him, Democrats should get rid of the conservatives who hinder his vision before destroying his new liberal coalition.

Well: it didn’t work. FDR targeted Rep. John J. O’Connor of New York, then chairman of the House Rules Committee, as well as 10 Democratic senators, and only O’Connor was defeated in a primary. It was more than an immediate political setback for Roosevelt, though it certainly counted like that. (The Democrats lost seven Senate seats and 72 House seats, although they started with such a huge margin that they still retained control of Congress.) But in a way, his desire to realign politics American on more ideological lines has worked. Southern right-wing Democrats realized they had a common cause with conservative Midwestern Republicans, and their “conservative coalition” controlled Congress for a generation, shaping national policy regardless of which party was officially in the majority. On the contrary, Roosevelt weakened the liberal cause rather than strengthening it. His only consolation was that many of the policies he feared would be targeted ended up remaining intact.

While the parallels between Roosevelt’s predicament and Biden’s are inaccurate, they are broadly similar that matter. Critics of Biden on the left want him to wage a political war against Manchin, Sinema and Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, middle-lane Democrats who appear willing to sacrifice his entire agenda in the interests of “bipartisanship.” . It looks like strength. It almost certainly wouldn’t work.

As Kaye pointed out, Biden just doesn’t have the votes that FDR has cast, whether in Congress or the nation as a whole. Roosevelt was a deeply loved figure who was re-elected in 1936 in what at the time was the largest electoral landslide in history. Biden, although he scored a decisive victory in 2020, has a more limited tenure. Lichtman noted that attacking moderate Democrats would put the Senate at risk, where even a lost seat would tip the body 50-50 to Republicans. If Democrats wanted a coalition large enough to make “centrists” unnecessary, they would have to come out in larger numbers and elect more Democrats to Congress and local offices. That hasn’t happened, and right now, Biden’s legislative coalition isn’t big enough, nor his popular support deep enough, even to consider Roosevelt’s strategy – which, again, didn’t even not worked for the most popular president of the 20th century. .

The underlying problem, perhaps, is that the Democratic Party, in its current form, is fundamentally incompetent. Show editor Andrew O’Hehir addressed this article in a recent article on Democrats’ failure to eliminate filibuster and protect voting rights.

It’s not a good thing to say about a group of mostly sane and roughly reasonable people, but here’s the truth: because of circumstances beyond their control, because of the internal indecision and ideological vagueness, because he was facing an entrenched and deranged opposition party, because of anything – you could hardly do better than the current version of the Democratic Party.

It’s not just Kyrsten Sinema who knocked down prescription drug prices just after receiving large campaign donations from Big Pharma. Democrats appear incapable of solving the fundamental problems in our economy and lack the internal cohesion to stand up to Republicans who use Trump’s big lie about the 2020 presidential election to erode or eliminate democracy. These issues cannot be corrected by beating Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema – which is also probably impossible and probably undesirable. The Democratic Party’s best hope is to become relevant and vital again, which is a much bigger problem.


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