THE BLOG
01/31/2016 07:16 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2017

Roosevelt, Reagan and the Sanders Moment

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression, and went on to win re-election an unprecedented three times. Far more importantly, the Roosevelt vision of a powerful federal government -- one that intervened aggressively in the economy to insure a measure of basic opportunity and security for all -- reigned unchallenged for thirty-eight years. When it came to domestic economic policy, FDR was president from 1932 until 1980. No Republican Administration--not Eisenhower's or Nixon's or Ford's -- challenged the Roosevelt consensus in favor of progressive taxation of income, social safety nets, and federal regulation that reached all aspects of society, from the economy to the environment.

FDR's presidency ended in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, and Reagan has ruled ever since. As we face another potentially epoch-shifting presidential election, perhaps we would do well to remember that last one.

In early March of 1980, a frontpage story in the New York Times reported that former President Gerald Ford thought Ronald Reagan "a sure loser in November," with "extreme and too-simple views." As Ford declared: "A very conservative Republican can't win in a national election."

As prognostications go, that one was wildly mistaken, but Ford's skepticism was widely shared precisely because it was clear to all that Reagan -- unlike Ford or Nixon -- was running against the Roosevelt consensus, that he intended to shrink "big government," cut taxes, limit the growth of the welfare state, crack down on labor unions, and roll back federal regulations. Once in office, after his landslide victories in both 1980 and 1984, Reagan delivered on much of this agenda. But more importantly, he fundamentally shifted the political consensus in America to the right on all questions of economic policy and federal regulatory power.

As Roosevelt reigned far beyond his own official term in office, so too has Reagan. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, famously declared "the era of big government" over in 1996, and proceeded to also end "welfare as we know it," as well as deregulating banking on a scale not even dreamed of by Reagan.

President Obama raised eyebrows when, even as a candidate, he appeared to praise Reagan, acknowledging him as having "changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not." Obama was certainly right, but instead of campaigning on a very different vision of government, he campaigned on empty platitudes like "yes we can" and "change we can believe in." As president, we can now say, with confidence, that Obama has not "changed the trajectory" or the terms of debate, despite one substantial accomplishment in the spirit of Roosevelt, the Affordable Care Act. But let's not forget that even President Reagan ended up a supporter and expander of Medicare.

What makes the surging presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont so unusual is that he is the first serious contender since Reagan's election in 1980 who really wants to change the fundamental terms of debate and of politics, to repudiate once and for all the Reagan consensus which, through Republican and Democratic Administrations, has now delivered us the America of 2016, one with massive economic inequality, crippled labor unions, and economic stagnation for most Americans.

Sanders embraces the old Roosevelt consensus with a vengeance, and echoes Roosevelt's own campaign against "government by organized money," a power which, as Roosevelt famously said in 1936, was "unanimous in their hatred" of him--to which Roosevelt famously replied: "I welcome their hatred." The Clintons, with their long track record of commitment to the Reagan consensus, could never be as bold as FDR, which explains, of course, why they too are beloved by "organized money" ; nor can Obama, with his only modest deviations from the Reagan consensus and his apparently personal incapacity for genuine conflict with the forces of "organized money" that dominate his own party (let alone the reactionary class warriors on the Republican Right).

Ford's assessment of Reagan in 1980 is now echoed by pundits and politicians opining that Sanders is too "extreme" to win a national election, his plans too "simplistic" and unrealistic. (Liberal economist and pundit Paul Krugman, in particular, has self-destructed on the topic of Sanders in the last couple of weeks.) Despite Reagan's landslide victory in 1980, he struggled with a Democratic House, though eventually his main policy initiatives prevailed in Congress. A President Sanders will face similar obstacles, as a President Obama has for most of his time in office. But with gerrymandering having rendered members of the House of Representatives more entrenched than members of the old Soviet Politburo, the only hope for changing the Reagan consensus lies with a president who really repudiates that vision of government and society.

The political history of America from 1932 until the present is far too limited a sample to yield meaningful predictions about the future, and the differences between Reagan in 1980 and Sanders in 2016 are as many as the similarities emphasized here. What we do know is that there is only one major candidate for president right now who proposes to change the "trajectory," who really is running against the Reagan consensus that has now lasted for thirty-six years (just two years shy of FDR's record). I for one hope that 2016 is the Sanders moment, and that a new political consensus will replace the failed one that has gripped our nation for too long.