Bipartisanship, circa 1933

Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President of the United States of America on March 4, 1933. His predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had assumed office seven months before the stock market crash of 1929. Hoover’s entire presidency had been consumed by a desperate, ineffectual struggle against the Great Depression.

At the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration, the most urgent crisis concerned the banking system. More than five thousand banks had failed in the USA in the previous three years.

In the months leading up to Roosevelt’s inauguration, Roosevelt’s appointees had already begun to work alongside President Hoover’s officials — an unprecdented arrangement, much to Hoover’s credit. Then, when Roosevelt assumed office,

Hoover’s men and Roosevelt’s now began an intense eighty hours of collaboration to hammer out the details of an emergency banking measure that could be presented to the special session of Congress. […]

Roosevelt’s and Hoover’s minions “had forgotten to be Republicans or Democrats,” [Raymond] Moley [a senior advisor to President Roosevelt] commented. “We were just a bunch of men trying to save the banking system.” William Woodin, the new treasury secretary, and Ogden Mills, his predecessor, simply shifted places on either side of the secretary’s desk in the Treasury Building. Otherwise, nothing changed in the room. […]

The bill was read to the House at 1:00 P.M., while some new representatives were still trying to locate their seats. Printed copies were not ready for the members. A rolled-up newspaper symbolically served. After thirty-eight minutes of “debate,” the chamber passed the bill, sight unseen, with a unanimous shout. The Senate approved the bill with only seven dissenting votes—all from agrarian states historically suspicious of Wall Street. The president signed the legislation into law at 8:36 in the evening.

(David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (Oxford University Press), pp. 135-36)

Last week, Senator John McCain said that President Obama has some lessons to learn about bipartisanship. Andrew Sullivan asks,

You mean Obama never went to the Congress to talk to the House GOP? That he hasn’t been relentless in including Republicans in the debate? That he didn’t urge over $300 billion in tax cuts in the bill to assuage Republican feelings in the first place?

Evidently, Senator McCain still hasn’t grasped that he lost the election. It is incumbent upon Republicans to support President Obama in carrying out the mandate he received from voters. But only three Senate Republicans voted for the stimulus package, and zero House Republicans.

Now McCain says that Obama needs some lessons on bipartisanship? Tail, meet dog.

Obama’s stimulus package passed anyway — almost precisely the package Obama had proposed:

A month ago, Obama economists Romer and Bernstein released job-creation projections that “assumed a package just slightly over the $775 billion currently under discussion.” Lo and behold, the final bill comes in at $789 billion. It reportedly includes Obama’s proposed tax cuts, comprising almost exactly the same proportion of the overall package. […]

The final package looks remarkably like what Obama has wanted all along. In fact, it’s closer to that original proposal than to either the House or Senate versions of the bill.

So where’s the harm in the intractable Republican opposition I’ve described above? It’s harmful because improvements which might have been made, weren’t.

When Hoover’s men and Roosevelt’s men “forgot” to be Republicans and Democrats, the banking bill avoided mistakes that might have been made if it was solely a production of the Democrats.

Maybe the same thing could have happened with Obama’s stimulus package. But that isn’t going to happen when Republicans can’t let go of a failed ideology centering around tax cuts; when they can’t accept the premise that the federal government must engage in deficit spending during a severe recession, in order to stimulate the economy; when they are bent only on obstructing this president, solely because he is a Democrat.

Senator McCain and his Republican colleagues have effectively removed themselves from the process. This is a case where the exception proves the rule:  i.e., the three Republican senators (Arlen Specter, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe) who worked with Democrats to modify the bill.


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