Frustrated by His Own Party

Roosevelt's Purge: How FDR Fought To Change the Democratic Party, By Susan Dunn, Harvard University Press, 361 pages, $27.95

For Democrats during the past two years, control of both the presidency and Congress has presented at once the ultimate partisan prize and the ultimate source of aggravation. In theory, Barack Obama should have been able to carry out his policies. In practice, he has been hobbled not only by the GOP's use of the Senate filibuster but also by the Blue Dogs in his own party. In search of congressional seats in 2006 and 2008, Democrats fielded candidates that fit the politics of more conservative areas, and bigger tents always make for more fractious coalitions.

Liberals currently experiencing an unhappy education in the frustrations of presidential leadership might take comfort in knowing that even the greatest Democratic president of all confronted the same problem and was unable to overcome it. But he tried what Obama does not dare attempt -- to defeat more conservative Democrats in their home states.

Franklin D. Roosevelt began his "fireside chat" on June 24, 1938, as he had begun others, recounting New Deal battles won and lost during the most recent congressional session. But he ended the broadcast with a surprise. "And now," the president intoned, "I want to say a few words about the coming political primaries." In this midterm primary season, he said, "there will be many clashes between two schools of thought, generally classified as liberal and conservative." Roosevelt insisted that, as "head of the Democratic Party," charged with carrying out "the definitely liberal declaration of principles set forth in the 1936 Democratic platform," he had an obligation to speak out about primary contests involving such a clash. Thus did Roosevelt announce a political gambit not attempted by any president since: active and personal intervention in key primary contests, not only to protect liberals but to replace conservatives. The press branded the effort a "purge," and the name stuck.

As Susan Dunn emphasizes in Roosevelt's Purge, her lively narrative of that vexed campaign, FDR was motivated not merely by personal pique and short-term legislative goals but by a vision of a refashioned party system. He explained in that extraordinary fireside chat that primaries should facilitate a "healthy choice" between the two parties in November, for "an election cannot give the country a firm sense of direction if it has two or more national parties which merely have different names but are as alike in their principles and aims as peas in the same pod." According to Dunn, Roosevelt "believed that the nation should have two effective and responsible parties, one liberal and the other conservative." Since the president attempted to accomplish in one frenzied summer what six decades of subsequent developments only haltingly produced, it's perhaps no surprise that the effort failed. But what an exciting failure!

Dunn ably sets the context for the purge attempt, highlighting Roosevelt's legislative struggles during his second term. A nascent conservative coalition, galvanized by the defeat of Roosevelt's court-packing plan in 1937, went on to delay passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act and kill FDR's executive-reorganization bill outright the following year. Virginia Democrat Harry Byrd met with conservative senators in both parties to plot anti-New Deal strategy and draw up a 10-point conservative manifesto. The powerful House Rules Committee chair, John O'Connor, lived to scuttle New Deal bills, mocking beneficiaries of federal programs who "go to the public trough to be fed." The Democratic troublemakers in FDR's second term make Obama's Blue Dogs look like pups in comparison.

Roosevelt was slow to turn toward ideological party-building in response. The famously pragmatic politician had specialized in strange-bedfellow and bipartisan alliances during his first term, an approach befitting both the economic emergency and an existing party system that was ideologically scrambled to an extent almost unfathomable today. But his second-term travails gradually convinced Roosevelt to leverage his popularity on behalf of a purge campaign, to be overseen by an "elimination committee" of aggressive liberal advisers including Harold Ickes, Tommy Corcoran, and Harry Hopkins.

Dunn, a professor of humanities at Williams College, is at her best detailing the specific races FDR engaged that summer. Tracing his crisscrossing train trips throughout the country, she vividly captures the old-time popular festiveness that still permeated politics in the 1930s -- the crowds of thousands waiting at every station, the president's back-of-the-train speeches, the intrigue attending each of his strategic slights, snubs, embraces, and endorsements of local politicos.

The purge's targets make for an interesting cast. The flamboyant "Cotton Ed" Smith of South Carolina was a prototypical Southern racial demagogue, while Maryland's plutocratic Sen. Millard Tydings was an icier, altogether more relentless opponent of the president's agenda in Congress. ("Take Tydings' hide off and rub salt on it," a vengeful Roosevelt told Ickes.) The most dramatic confrontation of all came in Georgia. Before an August crowd of 40,000, Roosevelt explicitly repudiated the senior senator Walter George and endorsed his primary opponent -- while the incumbent sat on stage just a few feet away. A remarkable photo, reproduced in Dunn's book, captures George staring thoughtfully ahead as the president lowers the boom.

Dunn's account also conveys the notable non-Southern Democratic resistance FDR faced. Conservative coalition leaders included Democratic senators from Missouri, Indiana, and Connecticut, and one of the purge's top targets, the irascible John O'Connor, was a Tammany-backed Manhattan pol. The O'Connor fight underscores the degree to which Roosevelt's 1938 bid for programmatic partisan coherence was an assault not merely on conservative elements in the "Solid South" but on core features of the traditional American party system itself -- the patchworks of state and local machines, the nonideological ties of group, section, and interest.

The ambition of the effort was matched only by its utter failure. Of the purge's top targets, only O'Connor lost his primary contest, while several liberal incumbents FDR supported went down to defeat. What went wrong? Dunn emphasizes the disorganized, ad hoc quality of the effort. Moreover, the electorate's aversion to outside meddling in local politics proved potent. (Gallup polls that summer showed that about three-fourths of Georgians supported the president, and about three-fourths opposed his intervention in their Democratic primary.)

Then there was race. Practically speaking, efforts to liberalize the Southern Democratic Party stood little chance without African American electoral support, scarce in the Jim Crow South and virtually nonexistent in the region's Democratic primaries. More fundamentally, subsequent events would show that the very ideological realignment FDR sought to bring about through an intraparty battle over the New Deal required the party's adoption of an aggressive civil-rights policy. And that was decidedly not part of Roosevelt's plan.

The purge did, however, help set the terms of liberal Democrats' partisan agenda in the postwar decades. The liberals would battle Southern conservatives for party control while pushing for congressional reforms to empower partisan and majoritarian policy-making. Moreover, they would articulate an intellectual case for programmatic national parties able to break the "deadlock of democracy," to use a term coined by Dunn's Williams colleague, James MacGregor Burns. Dunn's analysis of the purge's legacy is cut from Burnsian cloth. In a whirlwind final chapter, she traces the evolution of American parties "From the Purge to Realignment," showing how the politics of race and Southern economic development propelled a national electoral reconfiguration and produced by century's end the very ideologically sorted parties that Roosevelt had envisioned. FDR, Dunn insists, would be pleased with this development.

Yet virtually no one is happy with the current state of American politics -- certainly not liberals who have watched Obama's legislative agenda stall before uniform Republican opposition and key Democratic defections. In a rather jarring analytical turn at the end of her book, Dunn acknowledges that discontent and blames it on the mismatch between the new American party system and old American political institutions -- a "horse-and-buggy political system" that fragments authority and enables minority obstruction. Her only suggested remedy, short of turning American government into a parliamentary system through constitutional reform, is to double down on party discipline and concerted presidential partisanship.

I happen to sympathize with this vision, but it runs against the grain of widely held American beliefs, and Dunn can scarcely mount a convincing argument for it in a few rushed pages. Indeed, an irony of our partisan age is that the intellectual case for polarization and party discipline is less understood and less endorsed now than it was in the year of Roosevelt's failed purge. Dunn's engrossing book at least does us the favor of recovering that case's noble early lineage.