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A President Must Be Elected

ISSUE:  Winter 1944

Ours is a government of checks and balances; and perhaps the greatest check which it imposes at the moment on vigorous policy and farsighted statesmanship is the fortuitous fact that one year hence we must hold a Presidential election. The American people are confronting some of the gravest perils and problems they have ever faced, and about the last thing which any practical man would prescribe as a helpful way of meeting them would be a Presidential electoral campaign. In these exercises the American political system is always at its worst and most irrational; passions are at their highest, recalcitrances at their most obstructive, policy most deeply distorted by personal and factional ambition. Those “solemn referenda” on great issues, of which democratic theorists like Wood-row Wilson often dream, never, as a matter of fact, take place. The fact is so obvious that it is felt instinctively; there are always efforts to take the questions that really matter out of the political battle by agreement. They usually fail; the battle consumes everything without clarifying it. The parties and candidates always strive earnestly to straddle on every concrete, specific proposal. The straddles too often succeed; and in so far as policy is deflected by the electoral results, it is by an imprecise, emotional process hardly adequate to the terrible realities of our times.

Yet the electoral campaign has already begun, much earlier and with much greater intensity than is usual. For the next year, during which we shall be trying to end the greatest war in history and lay the foundations for a new advance by mankind toward a stable world order, every move of policy (and some, even, of military strategy) will be affected by political ambitions and factional animosities; the Administration will constantly be hobbled by partisan calculations and so, equally, will be those of its opponents who might otherwise be developing a broad and rational contribution to the actual questions before us. Each side will fiercely denounce the other for playing politics with the national welfare—which is, of course, one of the oldest methods of playing politics. It will seem more important to beat the opposition than to beat the Japanese and Germans; the blows exchanged in the partisan battle will hit our Allies and aid our enemies; and it is difficult to believe that anything in this whole process will be of practical help toward meeting the grave issues of war, peace, and reconstruction.

After our grim experiences in 1919 and 1920, it is unnecessary to labor the perils of this prospect. But it is idle to bewail them. They are an inherent part of our governmental system, and they could not be avoided without re-making not only its mechanics but its basic character. Different observers would put the matter differently. A psychologist would say that it is only this quadrennial release (largely on the symbolic level) of the underlying passions, hatreds, and irrationalities in men, that permits the system to function as reasonably and with as much orderliness as it does in the intervals. The political theorist would say that it would be impossible to secure popular assent for the normal processes of government without the absolute certainty of a recurrent opportunity to change it. The practical politician would say that without elections and electoral campaigns he would be out of a job. All would be saying essentially the same thing, even the last, who would not exist if there were not a profound social and psychological need for him.

However irrational, elections are the heart and mainspring of democratic government; and it is not even certain that the Parliamentary form, which has enabled the British to postpone theirs until the war is over, would be any improvement on our own. There is some advantage in getting it over with now, rather than waiting until the actual issues might be more critical, the emotions more explosive, and the possible consequences even more unpredictable. Great Britain’s “khaki election,” held on the morrow of victory after the last war, has seldom been regarded as a convincing proof of the virtues of postponement. It can be argued that if our own Presidential election had been held in 1918 rather than in 1920, the results might have been less calamitous than they were. This time, it is quite impossible to estimate the influence of our political calendar on history without knowing when the war will be over or what may be the state of peace negotiations a year hence; it is equally impossible to estimate the influence of world history on the political campaign. It is beginning in a singular fog of uncertainty, with all the really important reference points lost in the mists of the immediate future. But the campaign is beginning, under the inevitable impulsion of all the deepest and subtlest forces in our politico-social system. One can only hope for the best; and do what one can in the meanwhile to secure that the partisan passions will be discharged with a minimum of damage and a maximum effect toward clarifying the position and providing a firm ground for future policy.


Unfortunately, the campaign promises to be even less satisfactory than our Presidential campaigns usually are. The actual, as distinct from the imaginary, issues around which it must revolve are of a peculiarly elusive character, very difficult to detect or to define. As this writer sees them, they could be stated somewhat as follows: The Roosevelt Administration took office in 1933 at a critical juncture in American and world history. The established structures of economic and social organization which had been ruling in the world, more or less, since the turn of the century had finally wracked themselves to pieces under the pressures which they themselves had generated. Modernization had become as inevitable in the United States as it was proving to be in most other areas of the world; and the historic task of achieving it fell to the Roosevelt Administration. Our ideas, our theories of government, our political and economic institutions simply had to be brought more nearly in line with the imperative demands of the complex and subtly integrated society which we—in common with the rest of the world—were developing. The old “automatic” controls— free competition, the gold standard, the trade cycle> the free play of industrial warfare, the anarchy of international relations—were ceasing to work; or at any rate, greater and greater sections of the community were refusing to accept the harsh pains of working them. The regulatory powers of government were available; inevitably, they had to be extended into many fields, to control financial markets and the financial system, to preserve and “rationalize” the agricultural system, to secure some better method of organizing the nation’s labor force, to provide relief in the depression and set up some permanent measure of social security.

These measures were not simply the casual inventions of New Deal theorists; they were imposed upon other modern states, as they were imposed upon us, by the necessities of the times. They represented a task that somebody would have had to do in any event; but it was the Roosevelt Administration’s lot to do it. And by the end of the second term it had, in its domestic aspect, been done. It had been done very badly in some instances, perhaps very well in others, but it had been done and accepted. In 1940 there was no significant challenge to the fundamental elements of what has been called the Roosevelt revolution. No one seriously proposed to destroy the social security system, to hand the farmers back to the unrestricted play of a competitive situation in which they would be powerless, to restore the gold standard or the unregulated anarchy of the exchanges, or even to repeal the Wagner Act.

The historic task had been achieved; political tradition, the need for new blood, and the dangers of power too long enjoyed combined to suggest that the moment had come for the President to retire gracefully from the scene, leaving it to successors to build upon the foundations which had been laid. But there were no successors. The President had prevented, or failed to secure, the rise of any within his own party; the Republicans had failed to demonstrate their own fitness for the role. They had managed to leave far too much doubt as to whether they were really prepared to take over and operate the new state of affairs or were merely a coalition of dissidents who would in practice destroy it. The only alternatives to Mr. Roosevelt seemed of a very dubious character. That was one reason for the success of the third term candidacy. But there was another.

In the domestic field the historic task had largely been accomplished. It had not been accomplished in the international field. With the German tide engulfing Western Europe and Britain, the last bastion of freedom, apparently about to go down, it was only too fearfully obvious that the great crisis of our age could not be solved on the domestic plane alone. It involved also a colossal problem in military defense, foreign policy, the uses of the national power in the waging of war, and the establishment of some more stable organization of peace. In retrospect, it cannot be said that the Roosevelt Administration had been particularly prescient in regard to these grave issues; but it had been much more prescient than most. It had at least shown a far firmer grasp of the actualities than had the majority of its opponents. Whatever positive and effective steps had been taken had been taken by Mr. Roosevelt. The country hesitated to eliminate him from the scene at that critical juncture, in order to put in power a Republican party which had shown itself deeply divided on the central issue and so many of whose prominent spokesmen had proved themselves blind to its perils, ill-informed, and wholly unrealistic in their approach. The country was not happy in the choice before it, but in the end it chose to confide this new task—or rather, this vast, unfinished part of the old one—to Mr. Roosevelt.

It did so only to find itself now, three years later, approaching a similar quandary of an aggravated kind. Once more, the foundation work has been done with a considerable thoroughness. The Roosevelt Administration, powerfully assisted by the Japanese, has decided the main historic issue beyond possibility of reversal. It has ended twenty years of isolation. It has mobilized the military power of the nation on an immense scale and committed it unreservedly to a commanding role in the winning of the war and, therefore, in the building of the new peace. It has cemented a working alliance with our great Allies—Britain, Russia, and China—and has successfully established the principle that the peace must be built around a continuing co-operation with them, and with the other free peoples, in an international organization of what has in fact become “one world.” And it has seen that principle accepted by the main body of public opinion, as was strikingly exemplified when even the Senate gave an overwhelming vote in endorsement of the significant clause in the Moscow agreements.

Again a great historic task has been largely accomplished. In the meanwhile, the nation has plainly been growing “tired, very tired,” in Mr. Willkie’s words, of an administration that has plainly endured too long. The New Deal has grown old. It is suffering a fossilization at the top, as its increasingly elderly leaders continue to block the advancement of the younger men who ought to be growing up to replace them. When it came to a crisis, it was Mr. Welles, the younger and fresher mind who had made the broader contribution to our foreign policy, who had to be ejected from the State Department, allowing Mr. Hull to remain and gather the credit. Mr. Morgenthau is a fixture in the Treasury, year after year bringing in recommendations on the vital problems of taxation and inflation to which year after year less respect is paid by anyone. New problems of such immense importance as those of our economic foreign policy are entrusted to an Administration war-horse like Mr. Leo Crowley, whose talents, however great they may be, have never shone brilliantly in the public mind. Always weak on the purely administrative side, the New Deal is tending to grow weaker amid the tangled difficulties of manpower use, rationing, wage and price control, and the management of the huge new bureaucracy which had to be called into existence to carry the enormous load which the times have thrust upon the Federal power.

In some vital fields, notably those of labor relations and of the detailed direction of foreign policy, the Administration is too much hampered by its past pledges. And everywhere the fate of Aristides is steadily overtaking it. It is sagging more and more visibly under the weight of the contradictory dislikes, dissatisfactions, cantankerous human recalcitrances, and rebellions which must inevitably be accumulated by any power called upon to perform such great social tasks as those which fell to its lot. The bright liberals have long since been falling away from it on one side and the conservatives on the other; the New Deal, which never really succeeded in becoming a party, has for several years now ceased even to resemble one. The Western farmers are hostile; the reactionary Southern political machines are in open revolt; the equally reactionary urban machines in the North are being taught that the Roosevelt prestige will no longer deliver them the votes for which they traded their support. The ebullient enthusiasm and sense of dedication which swept so much before it in the early years is now only a dim memory. Even if the New Deal were returned to office next year with Democratic majorities in both Houses, there would still be no assurance that we would have a government capable of adopting consistent policies and putting them into effect.

Many fear with Mr. Willkie that power too long enjoyed will be abused. To this writer, the greater danger seems to be that it will grow too weak and inefficient, too deeply paralyzed by the internal divisions which it must more and more engender. More clearly than in 1940, the Roosevelt Administration has fulfilled its essential role in history; it is time for it to leave the stage. But the dilemma of 1940 is only more acute. There is, as yet, no clearly visible alternative.

The one really significant issue which seems to be raised by the political campaign is the issue of whether it is possible to replace the Roosevelt Administration with another which will not only genuinely and loyally accept the basic, and now irreversible, work of reorganization in both the domestic and the international field which the past eleven years have accomplished, but will also build on those foundations with the new enthusiasm, the new men, the more efficient arms of planning and administration, and the larger measure of public support which the Roosevelt Administration is no longer able to supply. If so, we can enter the dramatic future now before us with reasonable hope and confidence. If not, we face the prospect of either returning a new Administration which could only wreck and stultify what it would be incapable of undoing, or else continuing a New Deal under sentence of developing dissatisfaction, division, and obstruction.


It is an issue peculiarly resistant to the normal processes of American politics and electoral campaigns, and there is little about the men or the programs so far advanced to encourage the hope of a satisfactory solution. In the Democratic Party one faces a complete blank. If Mr. Roosevelt is not going to run for a fourth term, he has at least permitted the appearance of no one else who could run with the slightest chance of success. Names are bandied about—Mr. Wallace, Mr. Byrnes, Justice Douglas—but without conviction. It is obvious that a successor chosen by the White House would, like the unfortunate Mr. Cox in 1920, suffer under all the political and practical disadvantages borne by Mr. Roosevelt, with none of the corresponding advantages. No Democratic insurgent, capable of taking the control from the President, is even remotely visible upon the horizon. Nor could he well arise except on a policy of opposition to everything associated with Mr. Roosevelt; should he be nominated and elected, we would be confronted with the first of the two bad alternatives suggested above: the installation of a wrecking party in control of the government.

But discussion of the Democratic side seems academic at the moment. The Republicans, infused with new hope by the significant, though not too impressive, results of the local elections in November, offer the principal study. But they present an odd picture. Popular opinion polls indicate that three figures are now just about evenly dividing public support; they are—and it is a surprising collocation—Mr. Willkie, Governor Dewey, and General MacArthur. Mr. Willkie, who is the only avowed candidate of the three, has accepted the essentials of past history in both the domestic and international field, and is now fighting an earnest but so far indecisive battle to convert his party and its managers to that view. Governor Dewey, who is avowedly not a candidate and who, in the opinion of some who know him well, actively does not wish to be one at this juncture, is following an intelligently cautious middle role. The glamorous MacArthur, who permits hints of his ambitions to escape now and then through the restraints of military propriety, and who, in the opinion of some who know him, would make a disastrous candidate from almost every point of view, is one of those figures who have been deliberately exploited by the recalcitrants and the wreckers.

The mystery in the situation resides in that large element in the party, particularly influential in the Middle West and probably more prominent among the old-line leaders and party managers than among the voting rank and file, which seems to be in a state of angry, unhappy revolt against the times without knowing what to do about it or what practical alternative to suggest. They include figures like Mr. Spangler, like Senators Taft and Vandenberg, like the more rabid and embittered isolationists, like Governor Bricker, a monument of evasive generality. Mr. Hoover is discerned by some hovering elusively on one wing; Colonel McCormick, who in his curious rages has skirted so close to the line of actual disloyalty, lends his vociferous support from the other. They form a group with indeterminate limits; they are not exactly a party, but a coalition of contradictory dissatisfactions, which so far has been unable to announce any clear line of policy or develop any figure to serve as a unitary symbol of what they represent.

Their strategy has so far consisted of supporting all kinds of obstruction on the national stage and of trying to “head off Willkie” on the party one. The heading-off does not take the positive form of opposing the basic view which Mr. Willkie represents, but the negative one of political maneuver. There was an attempt to trap this formidable person in the engineering of the Mackinac Conference; there was another attempt to trap him at St. Louis. Mr. Willkie emerged triumphantly from both. There has been a definite and earnest effort to promote “favorite son” candidates— Mr. Bricker is the most obvious one upon the scene—in order to deadlock the convention and make it possible for the party managers to pick their own candidate, undisturbed by the tides of history thundering around them. The strange possibility that we shall end, as happened in 1920, with another Harding opposing another Cox is not to be dismissed.

But it is not yet a likely possibility. Should Mr. Willkie fail in his battle, Mr. Dewey, willingly or unwillingly, might fall heir to the nomination. Mr. Dewey is a young man, lacking a reputation for deep convictions, but he is a singularly shrewd and effective one, and he is undoubtedly aware of the character of the times in which we live. He might be adequate to the immense responsibilities which must fall on the man who guides this country through the end of the war and the building of the peace. The difficulty is that his nomination would, because of his carefully neutral stand, conceal rather than conclude the essential division within the party, and once in office he would be standing on a very uncertain party base. Even if Mr. Willkie succeeds in imposing himself on the Republicans, he may fail to impose his ideas on the considerable sections of them now opposing him, and they might well remain as a source of real danger and disruption within a Willkie Administration.

Will the campaign and the election really clarify this fundamental issue as to whether the United States is to advance from the point it has now achieved or to fall back into futile division and uncertainty? To this writer no other serious issue—such matters as administrative incompetence or diplomatic bungling may be important, but are hardly serious— has yet been raised. But the whole structure of our politics, which tends constantly to suppress or to slur the really vital national decisions in order to make the fight on the “safer” grounds of meaningless generality and partisan fury, is tending to slur and suppress this one. Perhaps it will be illuminated by the rise of some quite new figure—of some such person as Mr. Henry Kaiser, for example—in one or the other of the parties. Perhaps the march of events will make the answer clear. As the situation stands today, the thoughtful must find themselves perplexed.


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