FDR Scoffed at Bipartisanship. So Should Today’s Democrats

After Democrats took the House, former and likely future Speaker Nancy Pelosi foreshadowed that reclaiming the house would likely be the last high profile victory they would enjoy. She didn’t deliberately predict that the Democrats were destined for failure. But by stressing that bipartisanship would be a key priority for Democrats, she showed that failure was inevitable.

The day following the election, Pelosi told reporters that with control of Congress, Democrats “will strive for bipartisanship in the belief that we have a responsibility to seek common ground where we can” and that she hoped to turn Congress into a “bipartisan marketplace of ideas.”

Her statements were derided on social media. Nonetheless, she doubled down in an interview with The Hill where she frames compromise as a self-evident act of good governance, saying “we have an obligation to find common ground.” It was a deflating message for Democrat voters who’d gone to the polls to #resist Republican rule.

I suppose if you wanted to read the remarks as charitably as possible, you could say Pelosi’s applying being strategic. But I fear her reverence for bipartisanship is sincere. Rushing for compromise has been baked into Democratic culture for decades. Democrats are eager to surrender power whenever they attain it. As Open Markets Institute fellow Matt Stoller noted on Twitter, Democrats act like they don’t even really believe they have the right to wield power.

Conversely, acting like you’re in charge comes naturally to Republicans. Even when their leaders are immature dimwits, they’re comfortable leading.

Modern Democrats fret about having grown-ups calling the shots at vital government institutions. The grown-ups Democrats like Obama turn to are inevitably Republicans, like Ben Bernanke at the Fed, Chuck Grassley as Secretary of Defense or James Comey at the FBI. When Republican Presidents appoint Democrats, they give zero-power jobs to Democrats who are already basically Republicans, like when George Bush made conservative turncoat Democrat Zell Miller a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Reaching across the aisle isn’t a winning strategy for Democrats and never has been. When no-drama Obama worked overtime to compromise with frothing at the mouth Republicans, the Democrats lost 900 legislative seats. Meanwhile, FDR was the biggest winner the Democrats ever had. The only time he reached across the aisle was to punch someone in the face.

In FDR’s 1936 Madison Square Garden speech he says his enemies in “organized money” are unanimous in their hate for him and he welcomes that hatred.

Every Democrat alive today should listen to that speech, not just for FDR’s rousing words but for the crowd’s reaction. FDR has several applause lines in the speech but “I welcome their hatred” gets the biggest pop by far. The crowd sounds like there’s a hurricane storming inside the arena. FDR is silent for over 20 seconds while they go bonkers. It’s like listening to a WWF crowd watch a steel cage match at Wrestlemania. Three days after the speech, FDR won reelection in the biggest landslide in the history of two-party politics.

There’s nothing stopping today’s Democrats from stirring up that same bloodlust energy. Roosevelt wasn’t superhuman. He was an old money dandy stricken with polio who married his lesbian cousin. When FDR gave that speech he had little to fear from Republicans, leading some to believe the speech was only possible because there was no threat of political repercussion. And it’s true that Democrats dominated national politics at that time, holding 69 Senate seats and 322 seats in Congress. Nonetheless, it’s wrong to think that Democrats can only stand up to Republicans when they’re already winning. Listen again to that crowd’s roar. That’s what it sounds like when the people connect to a leader. Democrats were winning because they called out and fought their political opponents.

Democrats need to understand that they don’t have to work with Republicans. They also don’t need to listen to Republicans or even respect Republicans. You can’t create a marketplace of ideas with a party that only has two ideas (mule-headed aggression abroad, tax cuts to millionaires at home). Republicans aren’t grown-ups, which should be obvious from their president, a man with the attention span and temperament of a toddler. The future won’t be won by politicians looking to hold hands. It’ll be won by politicians ready to make fists.

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