Al Franken, FDR's Freedoms, & the Third Way

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET

Al Franken launched his announcement video yesterday, and it's great. He even incorporated one of the best parts of his book, The Truth (with jokes). No, not the hilarious Rumsfeld-overuses-rhetorical-questions routine, but when he talks about his wife's family, government, and progressives' promise to America.

The story goes that when Franni (Al's wife) was just a baby, her father died in a car accident, leaving her mother to care for five kids. Franni's mom worked at a grocery store along with raising that family. She made lots of sacrifices, but as Franken says, they "made it because of Social Security survivor benefits." Franni's sisters went on to college, thanks to Pell Grants and other scholarships, and her brother learned electrical engineering in the Coast Guard.

Franni's family became productive members of society in part because society felt it had a responsibility to them.

In those days, the Democrats in power had come up during the 1920s, and were witnesses to an era of conservative dominance and appeals to apathy. Harding called for a "Return to Normalcy" -- the anti-rallying cry for those who loathed progress. Coolidge had asked voters to "Keep Cool," and stay the uninspired course. By 1932, it was clear the Republicans had failed to provide a decent level of security and competency to satisfy the public, and they were soundly defeated in that year's elections. A realignment of American politics and values was at hand.

Those who came into power believed government should take an active role in fighting poverty and economic spoil. Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress passed laws to create jobs through public works programs. They supported the impoverished, sick and the aged through Social Security and federal housing. They sought regulation for the big businesses, and subsidies for the small ones.

This bureaucracy was created not out of want for government, but need. For FDR's New Deal placed additional human rights in the canon of American ideals. An American had the right not to starve. An American had the right to adequate shelter. An American had the right to security in old age. Roosevelt proclaimed the freedoms from fear and want in the same breath with the freedoms of speech and religion -- ideals cherished since the country's founding. This governing philosophy redefined liberalism and created the compassionate and prosperous Twentieth Century America.

These were the values of the men and women who shaped America when Franken and his wife were born, but as he says in his video, "It's different now than it was for me and Franni."

When Franni's sisters were using them to go to college, Pell Grants paid for 90% of a college education. Today, they pay for 40%. And President Bush, with the help of his Republican allies in Congress, have even tried to privatize Social Security. You should have heard Franni when they tried to do that.

It's different for middle-class families, too. These families are being squeezed harder and harder every year. Maybe you know what it's like to be one health crisis away from bankruptcy. Maybe you, or your parents or grandparents, can't afford prescriptions. Maybe you have kids, and you're worried about paying for their college. Maybe someone you love is in Iraq, and you don't know how long they'll have to stay there, or what will happen when they come home.

Middle-class families today struggle with that feeling of insecurity -- the sense that things can fall apart without notice, outside of your control.

Your government should have your back. That should be our mission in Washington, the one FDR gave us during another challenging time: freedom from fear.

Exactly. Democrats should maintain the spirit of FDR's freedoms, not deny them. And that's why it's so disappointing to see the Third Way come out this week to blast populist Democrats for disagreeing with their definition of a "New Rules Economy."

Basically, the Third Way paints the populist platform as a sham, "premised on the myths of a failing middle class, a declining America, and omnipotent corporations."

For example, by looking at household incomes of only working age families, Third Way found that median income was around $70,000 per year, not the $45,000 that most progressive economists cite. The typical household also held no credit card debt, experienced relatively little income volatility, and was satisfied with its economic circumstances.

Elizabeth Warren tears this report's methods apart (they cut out wide swaths of the population), and it should also be noted that in the past 15 years, credit card debt has tripled because more and more Americans use them to pay for basic amenities like food and health care.

But their rhetoric aside, many of the Third Way's policy proposals seem to be in the spirit of FDR's freedoms from want and fear. Maybe their strong words for populists have less to do with ideology and more to do with political posturing? They, too, came up in an era of conservative dominance, except unlike FDR's contemporaries, they bowed to the right. Even as the Republicans stray absurdly from the mainstream, veering to the rhetorical right of other Democrats is the Third Way's basest political instinct.

Either way, it's exciting to have candidates and elected officials who speak the way Franken does. It's good for America, good for FDR's freedoms, and quite possibly, good for the Third Way. After all, the more Democrats who sound FDR's freedoms means the more Democrats the Third Way can claim to be more conservative than.