What the Ghost of FDR Could Show Bill de Blasio and CPAC
81 years ago this week, the newly inaugurated Franklin Delano Roosevelt, having just instituted an emergency nationwide bank holiday, gave his first Fireside Chat.
It was a beauty. In plain language, he spoke directly to the American people. He did quietly, deliberately, almost intimately. There had been a massive run on the banks, and even healthy ones were running out of money to give to depositors. By closing the bank’s doors for a short time, they could determine which were sound, and which had been fatally wounded by speculation or bad luck. In the next few days, FDR said, they would begin to reopen, first in the 12 cities where there were Federal Reserve Banks, and then in other places.
FDR didn’t condescend and he didn’t minimize the pain and anxieties of his listeners. “I owe this in particular because of the fortitude and good temper with which everybody has accepted the inconvenience and hardships of the banking holiday.” He told them the truth, “I do not promise you that every bank will be reopened or that individual losses will not be suffered, but there will be no losses that possibly could be avoided..” He thanked them for their trust, “I can never be sufficiently grateful to the people for the loyal support they have given me in their acceptance of the judgment that has dictated our course, even though all of our processes may not have seemed clear to them.”
He treated them like adults, as partners in the solution. The people, rich or poor, great or small, would be the ultimate engine of success, “(a)fter all there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear.”
I thought about FDR’s chat when I came across a two rather startling set of polling numbers.
In the first, 52 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, it’s time for our European, Asian and other allies to provide for their own defense.” Only 37 percent agreed that, “As the world’s only superpower, the U.S. needs to continue to bear the responsibility of protecting our allies.”
In the second, only two months into his term as New York City Mayor, and just 4 months after he got more than 73% of the vote, Bill de Blasio has a 39% approval rating. Or, put in simpler terms, you could say that Bill has managed to lose the support of roughly one-half of one percent of New Yorkers for each day he’s been in office.
You might have thought that those two results came from the same poll; left-leaning, pacifist Manhattanites made crazy by the vortex of polar air and bad plowing. But they don’t. The first poll was taken at CPAC, the annual Obama-bashing hootenanny of conservatives. Reliable reports indicate the only two New Yorkers in sight were Donald Trump’s hair and Donald Trump’s mouth.
How does a liberal Democrat lose the support of a liberal electorate so fast? The same way that a meeting of right-wingers merrily flinging red meat could have a military and international tilt that seems, well, so not-very-right-wing. It turns out that both CPAC and Bill de Blasio, and to a very considerable extent, the political parties that reflect their views, could stand to spend a little time learning something FDR knew intuitively; the trick to governing, at whatever level, is to identify a problem, show understanding of the impact on the average citizen, ask for and be respectful of their support, and be authoritative in offering solutions.
What has Bill done wrong beyond forgetting that in New York, after the first eight hours, people like their snow-piles in Vermont? Substantively, not all that much. His two most important appointees, Bill Bratton for Police Commissioner, and Carmen Farina for School’s Chancellor, are generally acknowledged to be experienced, knowledgeable, and competent.
Non-substantively, he has a problem. He hasn’t yet mastered messaging. It’s not possible to satisfy more than 8 million incredibly diverse and opinionated people. But, if you can show that our priorities and cares are shared by you, we will, in our crabby way, cut you a considerable amount of slack. de Blasio, by contrast, seems to have found a handful of things that jangle the ears, and that static is defining his Administration. A de Blasio supporter told me yesterday “I don’t get it, I voted for him, I like him, and he doesn’t seem to be listening to me.”
Many of the younger CPAC attendees apparently had the same concerns with some of the speakers they heard. They are conservative, free market, small government types, and they share a disdain for Mr. Obama, but they were also excited by Rand Paul’s libertarian ideas. Santorum-style social conservatism doesn’t resonate with them. They don’t see Snowden as a devil. The Rubio/Bolton insistence on a military solution to every problem doesn’t appeal. “Small government” means “small” to them—out of the economy, out of their pockets, and out of their emails and their personal lives. Small government also means a smaller and less assertive military. They know very well that when the neo-cons are looking to flex muscle, it’s their generation’s muscle (and arms and legs) that will end up being flexed. In short, they aren’t your father’s conservatives, or Republicans.
This more libertarian attitude troubles and frightens many establishment types in the GOP and the conservative media. They think if you are a Republican you should have fixed ideas on climate change, environmental and health and safety regulations, evolution, guns, abortion, contraception, domestic surveillance, prayer in schools, Common Core, charter schools, the use of military power, Obamacare, voting rights, gays, taxes, government spending, Cuba, immigration, etc. etc.
The Millenials don’t. They agree with some, and don’t agree with others. Which shouldn’t necessarily be seen as comforting to Democrats either, because those very same Millenials are also rejecting the Progressive menu. They don’t think that every problem requires a government regulation, tax, or program.
What is interesting about this group, regardless of whether they like Rand Paul or Barack Obama, is their rejection of the jaded and cynical views of most of their elders. They know that neither Democrats or Republicans, Conservatives or Progressives, really trust the average citizen to do the right thing—the only difference is whom to use the power of the state on to bring into line.
The Millenials reject this, just as so many moderate and thinking people of any age reject it, even if they aren’t articulating it. People are tired of being told what to do. They are tired of the carping that passes for substance. They are tired of politicians taking them for granted, infantilizing them, or ignoring their real needs in order to pursue an agenda.
Whether you are Mayor of the greatest city in the world, or aspire to govern the greatest country in the world, if you want to really accomplish something, you best be listening to FDR as he ended that first Fireside Chat.
“It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”
I would say we ought to give that a shot.
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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