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Democratic Heretics

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

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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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 righteous-ness,” 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.

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