The President as Disciplinarian: Wilson, Roosevelt, and Congressional Primaries
Schurin, Ronald, Presidential Studies Quarterly
The role of party leader ranks high in every standard listing of presidential responsibilities. Yet, as analysts ranging from E. E. Schattschneider(1) to James MacGregor BUMS(2) have demonstrated, in a political system built on a foundation of competing power centers and characterized by traditions of localism, the president's relationship to his party is ambiguous. His is the party's most public face; he generally controls the party's central administrative machinery, the National Committee and its staff; and he usually commands the intraparty respect accruing to one who has won the grand prize in a highly competitive game. He can allocate or withhold patronage to qualified party members and can bestow or withhold the public blessing of his personal prestige. But the president has no statutory power over party members in general or legislators of his party in particular; he cannot regulate entry into the party's legislative caucus. Neustadt writes that the power to lead is the power to persuade.(3) In party matters, the president of the United States leads by persuasion or not at all.
For adherents of the doctrine of responsible party government and believers in a strong presidency alike, this poses troublesome questions. How can a political party develop, advocate, or implement a coherent, agenda when the ostensible leader of the organization lacks the explicit ability to reward or punish? What alternate strategies are at the president's command, and how effectively can they be used?
This article explores one particular party leadership and discipline-enforcing strategy employed by two icons of the modern Democratic Party, both of whom were advocates (at least in theory and at least part of the time) of party government and both of whom are consistently placed in the ranks of "strong" presidents. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt each advocated a progressive agenda, and each was frustrated by the resistance to that agenda by some Democratic members of Congress. Each adopted as one means of response the unusual tactic of intervention in the congressional nominating process to oppose their intraparty foes.
Wilson's record in this effort was modestly successful but little noted at the time, or later. Roosevelt's attempt attracted wide attention and is generally regarded as a tactical disaster. I review here the specific actions taken by each president and suggest why they had limited effect or, in Roosevelt's case, may have been counterproductive. My underlying contention is that the rules of the game in American politics--separation of powers, federalism, and, above all, a traditional attachment to the concept of local autonomy--have curtailed the capacity of presidents in general, and these two presidents in particular, to act as effective disciplinarians. Those factors remain significant in the political environment of the late 1990s.
Modes of Midterm Involvement
Although now common and expected, direct public presidential engagement in midterm elections is a relatively recent phenomenon. Through the first decades of the twentieth century, presidents certainly worked to help their friends and hinder their enemies, but they did so through behind-the-scenes use of power resources.(4)
It was not until the postwar years that presidential campaigning became a staple of midterm battles; it is now standard behavior. Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan all tried to transfer their own popularity to their party's local nominees, and even presidents in political difficulty have toured the country on behalf of their party's candidates. To cite one recent example, in the third week of October 1994, with his approval rating hovering at 40 percent, Bill Clinton went to New York, California, Washington state, and Ohio in a generally fruitless effort to help Democrats running for Congress.
But if midterm campaigning for the party is standard behavior, public campaigning within the party--that is, engagement in primary battles--is not. The former activity, using the president as the party's public spokesman, fits accepted norms of presidential leadership. The latter, which involves the president as combatant in intramural wars, does not.
Except for the two midterm elections explored here, the few deviations from the rule have resulted from circumstances unique to particular circumstances. William Howard Taft spoke obliquely against insurgents in 1910 but mentioned no one publicly by name. Harry Truman quietly intervened in 1946 to oppose the renomination of conservative Missouri Democrat Roger C. Slaughter, supporting instead Enos Axtell (who won the primary but went on to lose the general election to a Republican). But Slaughter represented Truman's own district, and the president acted as a local voter. In 1989, George Bush was induced to intervene in a lower level race, a special Louisiana state legislative primary. The candidate against whom Bush spoke was neo-Nazi David Duke. And Bush later attributed Duke's primary victory in part to a minor local backlash against presidential interference.
The President as Disciplinarian (I): Woodrow Wilson and the 1918 Campaign
Long before he entered politics, Woodrow Wilson made his mark as a political theoretician with a special interest in the role of party in American governance. Writing sixty-five years prior to the American Political Science Association's call for a more responsible two-party system, Wilson strongly advocated the sustenance of ideologically coherent and internally disciplined parties. He issued an unequivocal call in Congressional Government (1885):
If there be one principle clearer than another, it is this: that in any
business, whether of government or mere merchandising, somebody must be
trusted in order that when things go wrong it may be quite plain who should
be punished.... Power and strict accountability for its use are the
essential constituents of good government.(5)
Although he conceded that under the American constitution, "a strong party administration ... must often be impossible," Wilson argued for vigorous efforts in that direction nonetheless. Two means presented themselves: replication of he British system of cabinet government and promotion of strong presidential leadership over both government and party.
As a practicing politician, Wilson opted for the latter approach. The first sentences of his 1913 Inaugural Address spoke to the role of the political party in government, and there was no mistake that Wilson viewed that role as one of advocacy for a clearly articulated program:
There has been a change in government. It began two years ago when the House
of Representatives became Democratic by a decisive majority. It has now been
completed. The Senate about to assemble will be Democratic. The offices of
President and Vice President have been put into Democratic hands.(6)
"What does the change mean?" Wilson asked, and over the next months and years he provided an answer by proposing and ardently--and, to an unprecedented degree, personally--advocating a strongly reformist legislative' agenda. Although he did not command universal Democratic allegiance on Capitol Hill and had to make his share of compromises on the specifics of tariff and regulatory legislation, Wilson achieved remarkable success in implementing his program. He played the conventional political game when necessary and used patronage as a powerful tool. Although for the most part he held them at arm's length in public, behind the scenes (with the help of his adroit assistant Joseph Tumulty) he worked with party bosses on political matters.(7) Wilson's renomination in 1916 came without dissent.
But as he approached the midway point in his second term, Wilson grew impatient and concerned. Even in a context largely shaped by world war, he was thinking more deeply than ever about the course of domestic policy, and he saw limitations in the Democratic Party's capacity to function as a vehicle for the accomplishment of progressive ends. Of Southern origin himself, he saw the South's historic power within the party as a potential problem. He was not optimistic that it could be resolved through conventional political means.
Wilson toyed briefly with the idea of establishing a new political movement. His adviser, Colonel Edward House, wrote in his diary of a talk with the president in February 1918:
We discussed the trend of liberal opinion in the world and came to the
conclusion that the wise thing to do was to lead the movement intelligently
and sympathetically and not allow the ignoble element to run away with the
situation as they had in Russia. [Wilson] spoke of the necessity of forming
a new political party in order to achieve these ends. He did not believe the
Democratic Party could be used as an instrument to go as far as it would be
needful to go largely because of the reactionary element in the South. I
disagreed.... I did not believe the people of the South would sustain the
reactionary element provided the President came out strongly enough against
Whether in response to House's arguments or on the basis of other reasoning, Wilson apparently gave little further consideration to a new party. Instead, in the spring and summer of 1918, even as he carried the responsibilities of wartime leadership and developed the first drafts of what he would later carry to Paris, Wilson devoted his energies to casting the Democratic Party as an instrument of progressivism. As he wrote to a New Jersey Democratic gathering, "It is clear that in the present posture of affairs ... I cannot overlook my responsibility as the leader of a great party."(9)
Wilson's intervention took two forms. First, he played a strong if quiet role in articulating the Democratic vision, urging state parties to adopt progressive platforms. Second, and less quietly, he intervened directly in several Democratic primaries to oppose antiprogressive incumbent legislators.
This was a risky move, and Wilson initially was reluctant. In March 1918, he wrote a Tennessee supporter that to involve the presidency in an intraparty fight "would be to do the very thing which I think would be inexcusable, namely to personally intervene between two Democrats."(10) He stayed neutral in several close primary battles through the spring.
But over the summer, the president's attitude shifted. Although he wrote in August to allies in Georgia that he would not "undertake to dictate to the voters of any State the choice they should make," Wilson went on to proclaim his right to speak out should his help be solicited: "When my views have been sought by those who seemed to have the right to seek them," he wrote, "I have not hesitated to give them."(11) And with that he issued an unambiguous endorsement to progressive newspaper editor William J. Harris, who was seeking to topple reactionary incumbent Senator Thomas W, Hardwick:
Senator Hardwick has been a constant and active opponent of my
administration. Mr. William J. Harris has consistently and actively
supported it. In my opinion the obvious thing for all those to do who are
jealous for the reputation of the party and the success of the government
in the present crisis is to combine in the support of Mr. Harris.(12)
Two days later, on August 9, Wilson took a similar stand in Alabama. "I do not feel at liberty to make any distinction between candidates equally loyal," he wired Birmingham supporters, "but I think I am justified in saying that [incumbent Congressman George] Huddleston's record proves him in every way an opponent of the Administration."(13) The message caused a sensation among Huddleston's rivals, and 25,000 reproductions of the telegram were circulated around the district within forty-eight hours.
This response encouraged Wilson to go further, and a few days later he sent a message of support to Mississippi progressives working against Senator John Vardaman. The president's wording suggests that he was now willing to put his own prestige on the line in a local primary battle: "If the voters should again choose him to represent them, I not only have no right to object; I would have no right in any way to criticize them. But I should be obliged to accept this action as a condemnation of my administration, and it is only right that they know this before they act,"(14)
The interventions against Hardwick, Huttleston, and Vardaman were successful; all three were defeated for renomination. But other Wilson efforts did not produce the desired results. Democratic representatives he opposed in Missouri and Ohio were renominated. Moreover, Wilson sought to forestall Democratic support for Wisconsin Republican Representative Irvine Lenroot's campaign for the Senate in a special spring election to fill a vacancy, but the isolationist Lenroot attracted enough Democratic votes to win a close three-way contest. That result in particular caused some Wilsonians to wonder whether the risks of engagement in local contests might outweigh the potential benefits. As one correspondent wrote Colonel House, "Considering the majestic position the President occupies, it seems to me a loss of proportion and a sacrifice of dignity to enter any state contest personally."(15)
Not all Wilson supporters agreed. True, it was difficult then or later to discern any specific positive impact on party discipline or on the ultimate attainment of Wilson's agenda stemming from the intervention. But this was primarily due to the impact of larger events at home and abroad. Republicans--despite a last-minute Wilson plea for Democratic victory--took control of both houses of Congress in the November election, limiting the prospects for continuing progressive reform in any event. More important, the debate over the Versailles Treaty dominated political dialogue through 1919 and 1920, cutting across party lines and creating new divisions; new coalitions formed, with many domestic progressives planted firmly in the isolationist camp. Wilson's own health failed, and from October 1919 until the end of his term he barely functioned as president. Thus, Wilson's semi-successful intraparty involvement left the potential effectiveness of this mode of presidential engagement unclear.
Yet, the effort was not without significance. At the time, it firmly planted the presidency at the center of internal party affairs. It clarified politics in several states. And it set an example that at least one of Wilson's followers would note and, when the occasion arose, consider replicating.
The President as Disciplinarian (II): The Failed Purge of 1938
Unlike Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt is not generally regarded as a major political theorist. Yet, throughout his career Roosevelt did think seriously about the nature of American party structure. Roosevelt read the major British and early American writers on parties; as president, he interjected references to Lord Bryce and Alexander Hamilton into his speeches. He considered himself a Wilsonian, sharing with the twenty-eighth president a commitment to activist government, a strong executive, and party responsibility.
Roosevelt articulated this philosophy in a speech to the Democratic National Committee on May 29, 1919. Widely reported, the speech played a major role in lifting the assistant secretary of the navy from subcabinet obscurity to prominence within the party, and it contributed to Roosevelt's selection as vice-presidential nominee on the James M. Cox ticket in 1920. Roosevelt's basic argument was that the United States was in the midst of an ideologically grounded political realignment. The process had begun in the doomed campaigns of William Jennings Bryan and came to full flower in the Wilson years when, as Roosevelt put it, the party had "become established on definite principles." It should be clear to all that "the Republican Party is the conservative party of the United States and ... the Democratic Party is the progressive or liberal party."(16) Although he knew he was overstating the case, Roosevelt painted the political landscape as he felt it should look: two coherent parties, each articulating a clear and distinct philosophy. The Democrats, in this picture, were unmistakably the "party of progress."
Roosevelt amplified his view of government and parties through the 1920s. Temporarily on the sidelines as he struggled to recover from infantile paralysis but eager to stay in the public eye, Roosevelt used a series of letters, speeches, and even a book review to articulate his vision of the ideal democracy: a strong party run from the center, controlling events rather than reacting to them, guided by a set of liberal values--a party that would function, as in Jefferson's day but through Hamiltonian means, as the nation vehicle through which the common person could advance.(17)
The attainment of such a vision required political victory, however, and at least through the early 1930s it was clear to Roosevelt that a victory required the very kind of nonideological coalition politics he disdained. Whatever his views about the appropriate role for a political party, Roosevelt was a master at the practice of big-tent politics. His 1932 nomination and election came as the culmination of a process in which Roosevelt reached out to all segments of the heterodox Democratic Party--Southerners, reformers, and organization politicians.
Roosevelt's cabinet, although it included two progressive Republicans (Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace), likewise reflected the diverse Democratic constituency base. Social liberals such as Frances Perkins and Homer Cummings sat alongside such Southern conservatives and machine-oriented Democrats as Cordell Hull of Tennessee, Claude Swanson of Virginia, and Roosevelt's close ally, James A. Farley of New York. Farley used his own Post Office Department and other agencies as fountains of patronage for hungry Democrats of all ideological stripes. In these aspects, the Roosevelt team functioned, much like its predecessors, as the spearhead of a nonideological party-based coalition.
Of course, Roosevelt's government encompassed much more than the traditional bureaus of federal administration. The alphabet agencies created to deal with the depression and later to pursue social reform--NRA, PWA, WPA, AAA, TVA, and others--articulated, in aggregate, the New Deal philosophy of activist government. Although not wholly divorced from conventional politics (Harry Hopkins at the Works Progress Administration in particular used patronage and public works to win support from Democratic machines),(18) these agencies gave Roosevelt the opportunity to pursue an explicitly liberal agenda focused on centralized control over the economy. In his public statements, the president spoke of his programmatic goals and liberal philosophy far more often than he spoke of the Democratic Party.
The 1934 election offered the New Deal its first major electoral test. Roosevelt had thus far faced little opposition within his own party, so there was no need to use the campaign to assert internal discipline. The president did, however, make some halting moves to establish a liberal political base that moved beyond the Democratic Party, maintaining close relations with progressive Republicans across the nation and with the leadership of left-wing third parties in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He signaled his supporters that it was perfectly permissible to cross party lines in support of ideological principles, telling reporters a week before the election that they "would probably be amused to learn how many times he had voted for the candidate of the other party."(19) But in other respects, Roosevelt continued to function as a standard party leader--as, for example, in New Mexico, where he ordered the national Democratic organization to support colorless Democratic Senate candidate Dennis Chavez against liberal Republican Bronson Cutting.
The 1934 election was both a Democratic and a progressive triumph; save for the defeat of Upton Sinclair in his race for the California governorship, virtually the only Democratic losses came at the hands of liberal Republicans or third parties. It marked the only midterm election in this century in which the party in control of the White House won additional seats in Congress, and it emboldened the president to take a more aggressive ideological posture as he prepared to seek a second term. Soon after the 1934 results were in, Roosevelt told his cabinet that, although he was confident of victory in the election, he would make the 1936 campaign a crusade.
In fact, however, the 1936 campaign was at best a partial crusade. At Roosevelt's and Farley's behest, liberal forces overturned the Democratic Party's hundred-year-old two-thirds rule, sharply limiting the power of the South to veto potential nominees. Roosevelt's campaign speeches were far sharper than in 1932, even including a prediction that in his second term the forces of economic royalism, having met their match, would now "meet their master."(20) Yet, Roosevelt retained vestiges of coalition, broad-party politics. As in 1932, he actively sought to secure the support of the party's right wing and directed Farley to include conservative legislators on major campaign planning committees.(21) He saw to it that his nomination at the Philadelphia convention was seconded by a wide array of established leaders, including among the group right-wingers from several states. To a greater extent than in 1932 or 1934, he reached beyond the Democratic campaign apparatus, involving organized labor as a major political force. But Roosevelt's base remained the multifactioned Democratic Party.
The electoral triumph of 1936 was followed swiftly by legislative disappointment. Roosevelt mapped out an aggressive agenda for the Seventy-Fifth Congress, unified around the related concepts of a nationally directed economy and a presidentially centered government. Key elements included federal wages and hours standards, reform of executive branch organization to bring federal operations under closer presidential control, and a plan to enlarge the Supreme Court by adding more justices--the famous "Court-packing" proposal.
On each of these issues and on many of lesser importance, the administration found itself thwarted at every turn. Obstacles were presented not only--indeed, not even primarily--by the tiny and relatively quiet Republican minority but by Democratic dissidents. Some but not all were from the South. Some were die-hard New Deal opponents, but most had supported many of Roosevelt's earlier goals. Nevertheless, at their hands, the Court-packing plan died an ignominious death in 1937, administrative reform failed on the floor of the House of Representatives, and the wages and hours bill passed, after months of struggle, only in eviscerated form.
Roosevelt's reaction mixed personal pique and programmatic concern. Both attitudes were shared by White House aides and cabinet officers--notably Ickes, Harry Hopkins, Thomas Corcoran, and the president's son, James.(22) Early in 1937, this group met quietly and developed what would later be called an "elimination list" of Democrats they would like to see unseated in the 1938 elections. Roosevelt knew of the meeting, encouraged the group, but did not yet agree to their importuning that he himself initiate a concerted effort to punish his foes. He dropped hints that he would do so; he courted potential allies.
For more than a year Roosevelt made no firm commitments, but through the winter and spring of 1938 he edged closer to direct engagement. He allowed his aides to speak out in support of liberal Senator Claude Pepper's renomination over a vigorous right-wing challenge in Florida; Pepper's victory in May demonstrated the popularity of Roosevelt's program even in a relatively conservative state. In June, the White House hinted that it hoped for the defeat of Iowa Senator Guy Gillette, a moderate liberal who had deserted the administration on the Court plan. Gillette, even while pleading loyalty to the New Deal, made an issue of the outside interference and won his race. But the lesson the president drew from that contest was not to keep hands-off; rather, he told subordinates, when the administration became involved in a local contest, it should do so explicitly rather than through indirect hints and overtures.(23) The problem in Iowa, Roosevelt said, was that people had not been absolutely sure of where the president himself stood. Had they been, they would have followed his lead.
On June 24, 1938, Roosevelt removed the last traces of ambiguity as to his intentions. In a national radio broadcast, the president spoke at length of his plans to complete the unfinished New Deal agenda outlined in the 1936 "uncompromisingly liberal" Democratic platform. Some Democrats had not kept faith with that platform although they had willingly run on it, he said, and the philosophical divisions within the party were becoming increasingly clear. The coming primaries would therefore offer a philosophical referendum:
There will be many clashes between two schools of thought, generally
classified as liberal and conservative .... Assuming the mental capacity of
all the candidates, the important question which it seems to me the primary
voter must ask is this: "To which of these general schools of thought does
the candidate belong?"(24)
In that context, Roosevelt felt that his own duty was clear:
As the head of the Democratic Party ... charged with the responsibility of
carrying out the definitely liberal declaration of principles set forth in
the 1936 Democratic platform, I feel that I have every right to speak in
those few instances where there may be a clear issue between candidates for
a Democratic nomination involving these principles, or involving a clear
misuse of my own name.(25)
(The final comment was aimed at legislators who presented themselves as Roosevelt allies and then voted against major administration measures.)
The press, mindful of events in Germany and the Soviet Union, quickly labeled the campaign a "purge." Editorial reaction to Roosevelt's speech was highly negative. The New York Herald Tribune wrote that if the president were successful, "he will be the Democratic Party." The Baltimore Sun called Roosevelt arrogant and self-righteous, and the Chicago Tribune concluded that there was no place left in the Democratic Party "for anyone who is not a 100 percent New Dealer... The purge is to get them and there will be only Hitler yes-men or Stalin Communists."(26) These were Republican papers, but with the solitary exception of the The New York Post, there were no countervailing expressions of support from the Democratic press.
On July 7, Roosevelt set off on a cross-country tour to put his words into effect. The first stop was Kentucky, where he spoke out strongly for Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley, hard-pressed for renomination by Governor A. B. (Happy) Chandler. (Behind the scenes, the administration gave Barkley more tangible aid, deploying Works Progress Administration workers on his behalf) Although protesting that he himself was a Roosevelt supporter, Chandler made a major issue of the administration's interference in local affairs; he spent the four remaining weeks of the campaign calling Barkley a White House lackey and emphasizing his own allegiance to Kentucky. Barkley won the race, but by a relatively narrow margin; according to most polls, the senator actually lost support following Roosevelt's visit.(27) The purge was off to an inauspicious start.
From Kentucky Roosevelt went to Oklahoma, where he endorsed pro-New Deal Senator Elmer Thomas and Senator Hattie Caraway of neighboring Arkansas; both later defeated conservative opponents. He spoke out in Texas for liberal members of the House of Representatives. But these were all incumbents with strong local support. When it came to opposing anti-New Deal Democrats already in office, as Roosevelt had promised to do in his radio broadcast, he hesitated. The president traveled through Colorado and said nothing in opposition to right-wing Senator Alva Adams. He made no comment as the Indiana Democratic convention renominated Senator Frederick Van Nuys, a leading opponent of the Court plan. He was similarly silent in Missouri and Nevada, where conservatives were running for renomination against weak pro-Roosevelt challengers. Some wondered if the president had lost his nerve.
The answer came in Georgia. There, Senator Walter George was a candidate for renomination against two opponents, the rabidly racist Governor Eugene Talmadge and Lawrence Camp, a firm Roosevelt ally. On many issues George was actually a cautious New Dealer: in the first Roosevelt term he voted for the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act, and other key measures. But in 1937-38, he opposed the Court plan, the wages and hours bill, and executive reorganization; more important, the highly respected George exerted strong influence on his colleagues. Roosevelt told one Georgia friend, "It's as simple as this. Senator George's position in the Senate is such that you can count on at least forty senators going with him on anything he advocates. I can't pass legislation without him and I cannot depend on him being with us."(28) The defeat of Walter George, important in itself, would be an object lesson to less eminent Roosevelt opponents.
Thus, on August 11, Roosevelt, in one of the most dramatic political appearances of his career, put his full prestige into the Georgia battle. Speaking in the small town of Barnesville, with almost every important state politician (including Walter George) on the platform, Roosevelt issued his challenge. George was a personal friend, he said, a gentleman and a scholar. But one must ask two critical questions in evaluating a potential Democratic nominee for high office: does the candidate show "a constant active fighting attitude in favor of the broad objectives of the party and of the Government?" And "does the candidate really, deep down in his heart, believe in those objectives?" The president concluded sadly that in the case of Walter George, he could not answer either question in the affirmative.(29)
George immediately took up the challenge. He denied that he was as conservative as the president alleged but, in any case, he said, that was not the issue. The point was now whether the state of Georgia would assert its pride in the face of blatant outside interference. "Are the people of the State entitled to choose their own servants? The people of my native State are on trial and you'll make your answer September 14. I am persuaded that this generation of white Democrats will not let democracy down in our beloved State."(30)
George's appeals to local pride won adherents across the political spectrum. The normally pro-Roosevelt Atlanta Constitution endorsed the senator; so did the state chapter of the American Federation of Labor. Camp kept up the fight but in the end finished a poor third. Walter George won renomination in a landslide, carrying 86 of Georgia's 159 counties to 65 for Talmadge and just 8 for Camp.(31)
Five days after leaving Georgia, Roosevelt announced plans to visit Maryland and speak out against Senator Millard Tydings, a Democrat several degrees to the right of Walter George. Tydings did not wait for the president to arrive; he immediately took a leaf from George's book and made the Maryland campaign a second referendum on external intervention in local affairs. He told a statewide radio audience, "The sovereignty of our State, the right of our people to pass judgment on their representatives, without fear, intimidation, or outside interference, is again being called into question. This issue transcends all others."(32) Roosevelt spent Labor Day weekend touring Maryland with Tydings's opponent, Representative David Lewis. But on September 12, Tydings won overwhelmingly.
Two weeks earlier, South Carolina Senator Ellison "Cotton Ed" Smith, whom Roosevelt had opposed in a brief speech in Greenville, had also been renominated. Only in his home state of New York did the president's effort to unseat incumbents bear fruit. House Rules Committee Chairman John O'Connor, who had earned Roosevelt's enmity by scuttling several pieces of New Deal legislation, was narrowly defeated for renomination by a Roosevelt-backed candidate. The president, seeking to put as bright a face as possible on events, remarked that "Harvard lost the schedule, but won the Yale game."(33)
Impact and Assessment
James Farley characterized the Roosevelt purge as "a bust." This may have been an overstatement. The president actually fared reasonably well in supporting incumbent legislators. But in his effort to unseat Democratic foes, Roosevelt compiled a record of one win and three very public losses. And this does not count the contests in Missouri, Nevada, Colorado, and Indiana that Roosevelt decided to avoid when it became clear that the odds against him were too great.
The impact of the failed Roosevelt purge was far greater than that of Woodrow Wilson's moderately successful and more modest effort. Wilson's intervention probably shaped the outcome of a few races but did not alter the shape of American politics. It did, however, provide an example of decisive, interventionist, discipline-oriented leadership, and its most significant result may have been that it set forth a model that one prominent Wilsonian, Franklin Roosevelt, would later follow.
Roosevelt's own intervention had three major results. One was that it set a negative model for future presidents. There have been no public purges since 1938; however frustrated postwar leaders were with the behavior of dissidents within their party (and as Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson made clear in public statements, they were at times frustrated indeed), none intervened in the primary process in a systematic or direct way.
Second, the failure of the Roosevelt purge ratified the Southern Democrat-Republican alliance, already in evidence by 1937. Water George, Millard Tydings, and other conservative Democrats demonstrated that a legislator could stand up to a popular president and win a head-to-head confrontation. Roosevelt allies argued that by showing his willingness to become engaged in intraparty battles, the president may have caused some legislators to think twice before opposing administration initiatives. This might have been true in a few cases. But there are many more examples of conservative Democrats who defied Roosevelt and subsequent Democratic presidents on key vote after key vote, with impunity. Indeed, from 1938 until the administration of Lyndon Johnson, the coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats rather consistently dominated Congress.
Third, the purge served an important instructive function for political practitioners and political scientists alike, for it demonstrated the extreme difficulty inherent in any effort to foster responsible party behavior in the United States. Consider Roosevelt's advantages: a popular president, an overwhelming national mandate, masterful command of the nation's attention, and a clear sense of purpose. Yet, in spite of all that, he could not induce voters who had supported him two years before and would for the most part do so again in two subsequent elections to oppose legislators he painted as disloyal to his program. Why?
The reasons are inherent in the traditions of American politics. In pursuing the purge, Roosevelt found himself working contrary to the separation of powers that established the legislative branch as an autonomous unit of government. He found himself, as well, working against the concept of federalism that gives each state the right to choose its own representatives in Congress. These are not just legal structures; they are principles to which Americans have a deep emotional attachment. Or so Walter George, Millard Tydings, and Roosevelt's other opponents reasoned; they based their campaigns largely on this issue and won substantial victories.
To students of the presidency the lesson is clear. What Richard Hofstadter called the "Constitution against parties"(34) does indeed work against the development of ideologically coherent and disciplined political organizations, and it works as well to limit the president's capacity to control government. Strong presidents do, of course, shape events and influence their parties. But they do so through persuasion, indirect pressure, and allocation of resources. One means not at the president's disposal is direct intervention in the legislative nominating process. As an initially hesitant Woodrow Wilson probably suspected, and as Franklin Roosevelt undoubtedly learned, in party primaries presidents who seek to play the role of enforcer do so at their peril.
(1.) See in particular E. E. Schattschneider, Party Government (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1942) and The Struggle for Party Government (College Park: University of Maryland, 1948).
(2.) See James MacGregor Bums, The Deadlock of Democracy: Four-Party Politics in America (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963).
(3.) Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power (New York: John Wiley, 1960).
(4.) See, for example, Margaret Leech, In the Days of McKinley (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), pp. 370-71.
(5.) Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885), pp. 283-84.
(6.) The Chief Executive: Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States (New York: Crown Publishers, 1965), p. 222
(7.) See John M. Blum, Joe Tumulty and the Wilson Era (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951).
(8.) Arthur S. Link ed., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), vol. 47, p. 82.
(9.) Ibid., pp. 82-83.
(10.) Ibid., p. 6.
(11.) Ibid., p. 205.
(12.) Arthur S. Link, ed., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), vol. 49, p. 205.
(13.) Ibid., p. 224.
(14.) Ibid., p. 180.
(15.) Ibid., p. 388.
(16.) "Ranks Wilson with Lincoln--Democratic National Committee Calls Upon Nation to Support Party at Polls," New York Times, May 30, 1919.
(17.) See Sidney Milkis, The President and the Parties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 21.
(18.) See Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins (New York: Harper Brothers, 1948), p. 68.
(19.) Greg Mitchell, The Campaign of the Century (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 486.
(20.) James MacGregor Bums, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1956), p. 283.
(21.) Franklin D. Roosevelt Papers: President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Office Files, 1933-1945, Part 3: Departmental Correspondence Files (microfilm reel 18, 321), letter from James A. Farley to FDR, June 19, 1936.
(22.) The Janizariat, Time, September 12, 1938.
(23.) Last Days of Congress Dominated by Politics, New York Times, June 12, 1938.
(24.) Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt (New York: Russell & Russell, 1939), vol. 7, pp. 391-400.
(26.) "Editorial Comment on the President's Fireside Chat," New York Times, August 16, 1938.
(27.) See Alben Barkley, That Reminds Me (Garden City, NY. Doubleday, 1954).
(28.) See John Anderson, The Wild Man from Sugar Creek: The Political Career of Eugene Talmadge (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), p. 173.
(29.) Public Papers, pp. 469-70.
(30.) "George Asks Fight on `One-Man Rule,'"New York Times, August 16, 1938
(31.) Luther H. Ziegler, "Senator Walter George's 1938 Campaign," Georgia Historical Quarterly 53, no. 4 (December 1959): 333-52.
(32.) "Senator Tydings' Appeal to the People of Maryland Against Roosevelt," New York Times, August 22, 1938.
(33.) Milkis, The President, p. 94.
(34.) Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), p. 204.…
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Publication information: Article title: The President as Disciplinarian: Wilson, Roosevelt, and Congressional Primaries. Contributors: Schurin, Ronald - Author. Journal title: Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume: 28. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 1998. Page number: 409+. © 1999 Center for the Study of the Presidency. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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