Flexibility as a principle


By Joe Campbell
December 16th, 2007

[digg-reddit-me]I was struck when coming across this passage in Jonathan Alter’s study of FDR’s Hundred Days:

“It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” For a politician with a reputation for being unprincipled, this was a masterstroke: flexibility as a principle! But it was a principle that, in the right hands, might change the world. In the years ahead, Roosevelt could not “admit failure frankly” – no president does. But he did come to embody the long-standing American spirit of innovation and pragmatism. For conservatives, “bold, persistent experimentation” was a generally bad idea; they believed in those days that the government tended to mess things up when it experimented or acted quickly. But the idea of trying one thing, trying another – above all, trying something – was central to Roosevelt’s success for the rest of his life. 1

Two brief observations: first, it seems counter-intuitive today to see the government or even liberalism as innovative and pragmatic as FDR did.  For FDR, he saw a problem and believed he should do what he could to fix it.  This meant borrowing from socialism, communism, even fascism.  In the end, the result of the many experiments in government during FDR’s tenure is a kind of hybrid state.  Those policies that worked and were popular stayed; those that failed are gone.  This type of experimentation seems to have gone out of liberalism and the Democratic party.2  Instead, there are ideological liberals who believe

Second, FDR showed how with a better candidate, Hillary could have played her cards differently.  She still is the front runner and the most likely person to win the Democratic nomination, but I think the past month or so has demonstrated that she is fatally flawed as both a candidate and as a politician.  As Andrew Sullivan observed in his news-making piece in The Atlantic, she practices politics from “a defensive crouch”, afraid to give her enemies anything to attack her with.  And so she avoids standing for anything of substance or even engaging in honest dialogue.

  1. Pages 92-93 of Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment about FDR and his Hundred Days. []
  2. Politically, in time, this will end up as an advantage to Republicans as they have demonstrated a willingness to experiment with social programs. Of course, most of the Republican experiments are designed to undermine the programs themselves. []