We might wonder why no Democratic Party contender for the presidency has invoked the memory of the New Deal and its unprecedented series of laws aimed at helping people in need. The New Deal was tentative, cautious, bold enough to shake the pillars of the system but not to replace them. It created many jobs but left 9 million unemployed. It built public housing but not nearly enough. It helped large commercial farmers but not tenant farmers. Excluded from its programs were the poorest of the poor, especially blacks. As farm laborers, migrants or domestic workers, they didn’t qualify for unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, Social Security or farm subsidies.
Still, in today’s climate of endless war and uncontrolled greed, drawing upon the heritage of the 1930s would be a huge step forward. Perhaps the momentum of such a project could carry the nation past the limits of FDR’s reforms, especially if there were a popular upsurge that demanded it. A candidate who points to the New Deal as a model for innovative legislation would be drawing on the huge reputation Franklin Roosevelt and his policies enjoy in this country, an admiration matched by no President since Lincoln. Imagine the response a Democratic candidate would get from the electorate if he or she spoke as follows:
“Our nation is in crisis, just as it was when Roosevelt took office. At that time, people desperately needed help, they needed jobs, decent housing, protection in old age. They needed to know that the government was for them and not just for the wealthy classes. This is what the American people need today.”