The Democrats’ Wendell Willkie

John Moser

April 1, 2004

By the end of the 1930s the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt had lost a great deal of its luster. While the New Deal undeniably brought tangible benefits to millions of Americans, it had not delivered on its promise of economic recovery. Ten years after the Great Crash of 1929, nearly one worker in five was unemployed, despite the administration having racked up a series of budget deficits that were unprecedented in peacetime. Moreover, the president himself was caught in a dilemma—there was no up-and-coming Democrat whom he believed to be a worthy successor to the Oval Office. On the other hand, he knew that if he chose to run again he would have to face the stigma of being the first to go against the two-term tradition first established by none other than George Washington.

It was for this reason that the Republicans looked forward to 1940. Stung by a string of disastrous defeats in 1932 and 1934, culminating in the debacle of the Alf Landon candidacy in 1936, breaks were finally starting to appear in the electoral clouds. The 1938 congressional elections had led to the first gains for the GOP in ten years, thanks to the sluggish economy and Roosevelt’s ill-advised attempts to pack the Supreme Court and "purge" his own party of conservatives.

The only problem was that large parts of the Roosevelt agenda remained popular. The New Deal may not have succeeded in bringing about economic recovery, but this did not prevent most of its individual programs from winning support among key constituencies. More importantly, the president’s foreign policy, which had to cope with the challenge of a powerful Nazi Germany that appeared increasingly likely to win World War II, had broad popular appeal as well. The Roosevelt approach, which amounted to a moderate campaign of aid to the Allies while still proclaiming American neutrality, seemed to most a reasonable compromise between ostrich-like isolation and direct involvement in the European war.

This reality dictated that if the Republicans were going to have a shot at the White House in 1940, they would have to nominate a moderate. Unfortunately they had to do so at a time when many party regulars regarded Roosevelt with a degree of loathing that had rarely been seen in the history of American politics. They famously refused even to refer to the president by name, but simply as "that man. " These die-hard Roosevelt opponents flocked to the standard of Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, whose reputation for opposing the president’s policies—both foreign and domestic—was second to none.

Of course, it was not Taft who won the GOP’s nomination, but rather Wendell Willkie, an Indiana-born corporate lawyer who had never held elected office. Even more strangely, by his own admission had until the previous year been a registered Democrat. Moreover, while he had objected to certain aspects of the New Deal, most notably the Tennessee Valley Authority, he had gone on record as favoring the administration’s overall policy of aid to the Allies.

The Willkie campaign from the beginning faced a serious problem, since by early 1940 the country was clearly on the road to economic recovery, thanks largely to orders from Great Britain. This left only two cards for the campaign to play—the massive deficit and foreign policy. Yet his own record of support for the administration’s handling of international affairs made it difficult to offer any sort of substantive criticism of the latter, and his unwillingness to pledge himself to scrapping any significant part of the New Deal made his attacks on the deficit sound hollow. To the fury of Republican regulars, he did not offer a principled opposition to either the New Deal or the president’s policy of aid for Great Britain. Instead he campaigned on a platform that essentially promised to do the same things, only more effectively, and at lower cost.

At first blush, there seems to be little that Massachusetts Senator John Kerry has in common with Wendell Willkie. Unlike the latter, Kerry has a long record of government service, and an even better established pedigree of support for liberal causes. Nevertheless, he finds himself in a position that is eerily reminiscent of that which Willkie faced in 1940. For one, he is running as the candidate of a party whose base—like that of the Republicans in 1940—is far out of line with the views of the political moderates whose support will be essential for victory in November. Moreover, as has been widely noted the Democratic base—many of whom preferred the candidacy of Howard Dean—hates George W. Bush with a passion that is reminiscent of the loathing directed toward FDR by hard-core Republicans.

The result of this is that Kerry will have to perform a political high wire act similar to that attempted by Willkie sixty-four years ago. As he is no doubt aware, a substantial majority of his party believes that the United States should not have intervened in Iraq. At the same time, he cannot avoid the fact that a sizeable majority among the American public at large continues to support that war. Nor can he avoid the fact that as a senator he voted for key parts of the Bush agenda, particularly the congressional authorization for the use of military force against Iraq. He must therefore try to convince voters that he will adhere to the current administration’s No Child Left Behind plan—but will commit more resources to it. That he will keep the administration’s tax cuts for the middle class, and indeed build on them. That he will maintain the American presence in Iraq—but will try to involve the United Nations (in spite of the latter’s clearly expressed desire to stay out). And that he will do all of these things while bringing down the budget deficit at the same time.

Wendell Willkie was, indeed, able to mount an impressive campaign in 1940. He was, by all accounts, a likeable character and a skillful campaigner. And while he lost the election in November, he did manage to attract nearly 45 percent of the popular vote—a vast improvement over Alf Landon’s dismal performance four years earlier. But lose he did, and the vote in the Electoral College was a lopsided 449 to 82. He lost because Republicans wanted a crusade against a president whom they did not just oppose, they loathed—they believed, in fact, that he was literally a threat to the republic. What they got was a candidate who might have appealed to many moderates who would have liked to see new blood in the White House, but who offered no real alternative to the foreign and domestic policies of Franklin Roosevelt.

It might be argued that John Kerry could try a different strategy—he could make a sudden swing to the Left in an effort to keep his base enthused. Of course, Willkie could have tried that as well, but it would have been just as difficult to square that with his previous record as it would be for Kerry to do so today. And even if he did, it would not help his chances. Had Willkie made a serious bid for conservative votes, promising to scrap the New Deal and halt all aid to Great Britain, he would likely have lost by an even greater margin.

Kerry, in other words, finds himself attempting to straddle a serious divide between the views of the Democratic base and those of the general public. It is unlikely that he can do so, although his efforts along these lines should provide considerable entertainment for Republicans in the coming months.

Mr. Moser is an assistant professor of history at Ashland University. He is author of Twisting the Lion’s Tail: American Anglophobia between the World Wars (New York University Press, 1999) and Presidents from Hoover through Truman, 1929-1953 (Greenwood Press, 2001). His latest book, Right Turn: John T. Flynn and the Origin of the Culture Wars, will appear next year from New York University Press.