Blogs > Cliopatria > So Who's the Radical?

Apr 18, 2005 3:29 pm

So Who's the Radical?

Headline over Bob Herbert's column ( in the NYT today:


Naturally, I figured Herbert was bashing Bush today. But it turned out he was writing in praise of FDR, whom he describes as a radical.

I am not sure that radical is the right word for FDR. Most often he was quite modest in his approach. He never gave up his fear of deficit spending and every time the economy got going he would cut back on spending. Before Pearl Harbor, still worried about the attraction of isolationism to millions of Americans, he was said to be the last person in the administration to decide that we would have to resist the Nazis.

Yes, as Herbert observes, FDR sounded idealistic notes and proposed an economic bill of rights that to our ears sounds downright radical. But given the context of the times his economic bill of rights was not perceived as radical.

President Bush on the other hand often is radical. His tax plan was radical in 2001. His Social Security plan in 2005 is radical.

Do Americans want radicalism in a president? Bush got his tax cuts. He appears unable to win his Social Security "reform."

I think that fundamentally the American people are not radical. Indeed, they are downright conservative most of the time and under most circumstances. The tax cuts got through not because they were radical and Americans found a radical program appealing, but because they did not seem radical. Through clever marketing and precisely timed sunset provisions designed to minimize the impact of the cuts on the federal budget they seemed, in comparison to the large numbers thrown around by Greenspan and others regarding the expected surpluses, almost prudent.

Bush's Social Security plans, however, have seemed radical. Bush has made no attempt to make them seem conservative. He seems to have made the calculation that the only way he can get his measure passed is by creating a crisis-atmosphere that makes people think that we MUST ACT NOW OR FACE DOOM. (This strategy may sound familiar. It is the strategy he has employed to great effect in the war on terrorism. But in this case he doesn't have the pictures of burning 9-11 buildings to play off of.)

His approach is therefore a serious miscalculation and will, I suspect, lead to defeat.

Interestingly, it is usually the Democrats who frighten the American people with utopian plans. But this time it's the Republicans. It's 1964 all over again. Bush may be more palatable than Goldwater personally. But he is inviting a harsh response with his radical talk.

The strategy of the Democrats then should be to emphasize that they want to conserve the program while the Republicans want to try a radical experiment.

Simple strategy. Now let's see if the Democrats have the wit to adopt it.

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