THE BLOG

Thinking About Franklin Roosevelt

03/10/2015 04:37 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

I have just read a fascinating old biography of John Nance Garner, who was FDR's vice president from 1933 into 1941. (Garner of Texas, Bascom Timmons, Harper Bros. 1948) Garner had been a key Democrat in the House of Representatives for 30 years before Roosevelt chose him as a running mate and Timmons, a newspaper man and fellow Texan, had been his confident for decades.

Garner had many friends in both "great parties," but he was a Democrat to his core. He had carried water --- characteristically without fanfare --- for Woodrow Wilson, lining up support to reduce tariffs and create the Federal Reserve. He favored a stiff inheritance tax and opposed sales taxes that hit middle and low income people. When the Ku Klux Klan tried to oust Garner from his seat, he beat them.

Garner and many other southern Democrats after FDRs election in 1932 supported almost all of the New Deal economic measures. Most backed the Emergency Banking Act, the National Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, TVA, relief bills, public works, stock market regulation, abrogation of the gold standard, the Reciprocal Trade acts, Social Security, the Wagner Labor Relations Act (collective bargaining), and more.

Garner was a died-in-the-wool progressive, but not by today's definition. He believed with great conviction in balancing the budget. He backed Herbert Hoover's efforts to do so from 1929 through 1932, and he praised Roosevelt's promises to outdo Hoover in this regard. Ideas can be supremely powerful even when reality contradicts them and the idea of a balanced budget is such an idea.

The Congress almost unanimously agreed with Garner, Hoover and Roosevelt that balancing the budget would promote economic recovery even though repeated efforts to do so by slashing spending and raising taxes suggested the opposite. Economists of the conservative Chicago School in 1932 tried to convince Hoover and Republican politicians that government deficits were appropriate when private spending and investment collapsed, but they failed. Keynesian economists a few years later had more success with Democrats, but never with old-school Jeffersonians like Garner.

FDR and Garner gradually grew apart after 1936, but it was not over economic issues or race. Garner advised FDR not to try to enlarge the Supreme Court because it would split the party: Most old-school Democrats opposed it. Loyalty to FDR for them was secondary to this issue of principle. Garner also argued with FDR against trying to purge Democratic senators and house members deemed insufficiently loyal although many of them had supported the economic New Deal. Roosevelt did not take his Vice President's advice and failed in both efforts as Garner predicted he would. FDR then broke his pledge not to seek a third term despite the two-term precedent going back 140 years, further disappointing Garner.

Reading about Roosevelt and the New Deal as Garner saw them made me think. Garner was a man of the legislature. He believed legislative government could work. He respected those in both parties who had faced voters, made hard political choices and compromises, and stood by their convictions, principles and commitments. Such respect for politics and politicians is not much evident these days. Maybe it should be.