There have been a few comparisons between Mitt Romney and Herbert Hoover, due to slight similarities in stated economic policies and business background. But it seems to me that there’s a lot that Romney has in common with Hoover’s successor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They were both men from prominent families who served for four years as Northeastern Big-State Governors and tried to imitate the approaches of their famous relatives. FDR followed Teddy into the New York state legislature, becoming the Assistant Secretary of the Navy before his selection as the Vice Presidential nominee and his election to Governor of New York. Teddy did it in a slightly different order, becoming Governor before he was chosen for a presidential ticket. Mitt Romney decided to enter politics after making his name in the private sector, as his father did. Mitt was the same age as his father was when he was elected Governor, six years prior to his first presidential bid, just like bid.
For Forbes, the Hoover Institute’s David Davenport happily compared Presidents Hoover and Obama. I recently Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s 100 Days and the Triumph of Hope, about FDR’s rise to the presidency and his famous first hundred days. Many of the descriptions of FDR could apply just as well to Romney, such as the comments about his political convictions, or lack thereof. (93)
For a politician with a reputation for being unprinciples, this was a msterstroke: flexibility as a principle! But it was a principle, that in the right hands, might change the world. In the years ahead, Roosevelt could not “admit failure frankly”- no president does. But he did come to embody the long-standing American spirit of innovation and pragmatism.
Mitt Romney tried to make conservative voters forget about Romneycare, his greatest accomplishment. FDR had to explain his previous positions as a member of Wilson’s cabinet and the 1920 Vice-Presidential nominee to isolationist Democrats in 1932. (99)
To try to seal with conservative Democrats, FDR made a 180-degree turn on the League of Nations. He had practically run for vice president in 1920 on the single issue of supporting the League, but by 1932 he felt intense pressure to change his mind. When he tried to temporize behind closed doors, his bluff was called. In an open letter in his newspapers, William Randolph Hearst wrote: “If Mr. Roosevelt has any statements to make about his not being an internationalist he should make it to the publicly, and not to me privately.” Hearst added that FDR should get in the habit of using the word “AMERICAN” more in speeches.
Roosevelt caved, drawing a labored distinction between economic internationalism, which he said he favored, and political internationalism, ehich he said he opposed.
Both Mitt Romney and FDR were champions at splitting hairs. Romney constantly reminds voters how he kept his promise not to raise taxes as Governor of Massachusetts, but he made up for it with an increase in fees. FDR was at least just as pedantic, as one can see from his maneuvers against his top rival for the Democratic Party’s 1932 presidential nomination: Al Smith, his predecesor as Governor of New York and the 1928 presidential candidate. (101)
Smith wanted one of his loyalists, Jouett Shouse, who was then running the party day to day, to serve as convention chariman. The Roosevelt forces objected and a standoff ensued for weeks. Finally the two sides worked out a compromise: An FDR backer, Alben Barkley of Kentucky, would be the keynote speaker (also an important function in influencing delegates) and Shouse was to become the gavel-wielding chairman. One for Frank, and one for Al. Not trusting Roosevelt, the Smith camp wanted the Governor’s personal commitment before sealing the deal. A young party official was dispatched to call FDR in Albany, and he reported back that Roosevelt would “recommend” the compromise to the delegates when the convention opened.
Or would he? This would not be the last time that someone drew the wrong conclusion from a conversation with Roosevelt. Now the wordplay began. In April, the Roosevelt camp issued a statement that the Governor had “commended” the compromise.
In the middle of the convetion, Heywood Broun wrote a widely read column about “Feather Duster Roosevelt,: a “weak-willed,” corkscrew candidate.” (The columnist Elmer Davis had memorably described Roosevelt as “a man who tthinks that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but a corkscrew.”) “I still remember that column,” Leon Despres, a young Chicago lawyer in attendance, recalled decades later. “Nobody could work up much enthiusiasm for Roosevelt.” He was, in the argot of a later age, a “flip flopper,” who had gone back and forth not just on Tammany but on the LEague of Nations, Prohibition, and “sound money.” The notion that FDR was a “phony and a weakling” soon “permeated the convention,” remembered Samuel Bledsoe, a top political reporter.
Many Republicans would prefer a Ryan-Romney ticket to the Romney-Ryan ticket we currently have. Democrats in 1932 had similar feelings about FDR and James Garner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time. (110)
“It’s a Kangaroo ticket,” said One Texan, referring to the perceived weakness of Roosevelt. “Stronger in the hindquarters than in the front.” Back in Washington, Garner slept through the proceedings, not even bothering to listen to the radio. He didn’t find out until the next day that FDR was the nominee.
Romney has been criticized for avoiding policy during discussions during the campaign. It seems as if he just followed in FDR’s footsteps. (128)
So when Roosevelt started campaigning in earnest, his speeches were full of bromides; no sense, he figured, in risking his advantage by saying something unsound. He made not a single speech on foreign policy during his entire campaign. More astonishingly, FDR said nothing about banking, though thousands of banks were already closed.
Instead, FDR scored points with offhand remarks calling Hoover, whom he never mentioned by name, “Humpty Dumpty,” or mocking his lateness in responding to the Depression.
FDR came to the correct conclusion that the public antipathy to Herbert Hoover was enough, even if it wasn’t immediately clear what he would do differently. (132)
By fall, it was dawning on people that FDR’s positions on specific issues- to the extent that one could discern anything coherent- were not so much different from Hoover’s.
The bigger problem may have been FDR’s obstructionism. More on that tomorrow.