POLITICS NOVEMBER 29, 1933
We have never before had anything like the Roosevelt administration. Except perhaps for early assemblies of the Founding Fathers, there has never been a government in this country which has acted so rapidly, and imprinted its influence on so many varied areas of our national life. It is not enough to say that Mr. Roosevelt has been faced with a great emergency. So was Mr. Hoover, and he was as immobile as a lump of mud. Nor, unless you are a hero worshiper, can you explain it by Mr. Roosevelt's superior personal virtue.
What is it that makes the Roosevelt administration tick? For anyone wishing to investigate this problem, I have a few small suggestions. The first is that the administration is essentially a coalition government. From its inception, it has been made up of clearly recognizable Right and Left wings. On the Right, you find Mr. Lewis W. Douglas and what is now called the "Treasury crowd"; on the Left stand Mr. Tugwell, Mr. Berle, Dr. Wolman and a long list of liberal and radical lawyers, college professors and economists.
You find this principle of coalition running straight down through the administration. In the N.R.A. you find Mr. Roosevelt's deputy. General Johnson, perched between an Industrial Advisory Board representing employers, and a Labor Advisory Board, representing the workers. In the words of General Johnson: "Our whole organization is designed to maintain balance. An industrialist and a labor leader sit in on everything we do." Over in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, you discover authority almost evenly balanced between a group unabashedly representing Big Business andthe group headed by Mr. Tugwell. Perhaps the most startling application of the coalition principle was Mr. Roosevelt's selection, last summer, of professor George F. Warren, exponent of the commodity dollar, and Professor O. M. W. Sprague, strait-laced economic classicist, as the two chief experts of the administration's unofficial committee on monetary policy. Here the coalition has signally failed to coalesce and—as is apparent in Mr. Roosevelt's recent pronouncements—the administration still lacks a permanent, agreed-upon monetary program.
I suggest that this coalition principle is the thing which gives the Roosevelt administration its great mobility. In a sense, a coalition government can be looked upon as simply a parliamentary form of dictatorship. If you are Adolf Hitler, you beat up your opponents with rubber clubs, fling them into concentration camps, or kill them. In a democratic country you bring the opposition inside your administration. In either case, you succeed in rendering your opponents temporarily voiceless, and ensure yourself such freedom of action as a partisan government can never have.
This comparison between a dictatorship and a parliamentary coalition, however, has one obvious flaw. Hitler presumably can hold power as long as he can keep his Storm Troops fed, uniformed and supplied (in defiance of the Versailles Treaty) with modern arms. On the other hand, a parliamentary coalition can be broken up the moment either the Right or Left Wing decides to present its collective resignation and walk out. The head of a coalition government, accordingly, can exercise his freedom of action only within limits; the moment he irrevocably alienates his support on either the Right or Left, he is through. In the case of Mr. Roosevelt, you find that while he has acted with amazing boldness and imagination on a multitude of questions, he has shown great reluctance in facing up to a fight on any single clear-cut issue.
The great issue facing Mr. Roosevelt on the day of his inauguration was that of banking reorganization. The demand was laid before Mr. Roosevelt by the Left-wing members of his administration, headed by Mr. Berle, that he take over the banking system bodily. Failing this, it was urged in the strongest terms that he seize the opportunity created by the complete banking collapse to establish social control over at least investment of new capital. Without such control over newcapital, the Left wing argued, the rebuilding of a stabilized economic structure would be made immensely difficult, probably impossible.
There is some evidence that Mr. Roosevelt personally agreed with this point of view. But tohave acted on it would have meant that Mr. Wee Willie Woodin, Mr. Douglas and the whole Right half of the administration would walk out. On the other hand, Mr. Roosevelt had to act in some manner or face revolt on the Left. What in fact Mr. Roosevelt did was to accept the present Securities Act, pet brain-child of Professor Frankfurter, which leaves the private investment bankers substantially untouched, but under most stringent federal policing. Mr. Woodin, Mr. Douglas and the financial interests for whom they are spokesmen did not dare refuse the Securities Act, lest worse befall. Conversely, the Left wingers, having obtained the Securities Act, were able to swallow their chagrin at failing to gain more far-reaching legislation.
As a result of this episode, the limits within which the administration is able to maneuver in its banking policy are now fixed. It cannot move to take control of investment out of the hands of the bankers, because that is the point at which the administration’s Right wing will begin to fight. Neither can it relax the provisions of the Securities Act (apparently equivalent restrictions are soon to be imposed on the New York Stock Exchange), because that is the place at which the Left wing has strung its barbed wire and thrown up trenches. However the interesting thing is the freedom for experimentation, within these limits, which Mr. Roosevelt has obtained. Through the Public Works Administration and the R.F.F., the administration has been in effect dictating the course of the new capital investment for several months.
A second decisive issue facing Mr. Roosevelt on Inauguration Day was that of the railroads. Many railroads were already in hock to the R.F.F., and as a first step towards establishing social control of industry, the taking over of the railroads by the government seemed clearly indicated. But Mr. Roosevelt refused to risk a fight on the issue of government ownership. At the same time, because of the Left members of the administration, he could not leave the railroad problems untouched. The result was the appointment of Mr. Joseph B. Eastman as Transportation Coordinator. Within the narrow area allotted him, Mr. Eastman has performed minor miracles. He has deflated the salaries of railroad presidents, made a belligerent attempt to bring down the price of steel rails and has at last bullied the railroads into meeting bus and truck competition by radically improved equipment and by the establishment of bus and truck lines of their own.
The administration’s outstanding achievement is the N.R.A. In the N.R.A., as we have seen, the boundaries of possible action are openly indicated. It must not move far enough to the Left to outrage Mr. Myron C. Taylor and his colleagues of the present employers’ Advisory Board and drive them into resigning. Similarly, it cannot shift far enough to the Right to make inevitable resignations from Dr. Wolman, Mr. Sidney Hillman, Mr. John L. Lewis and the labor group.
In the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, sister organization of the N.R.A., you lately have found this same coalition set-up. At the A.A.A.’s inception, Mr. Bernard M. Baruch and Mr. Thomas L. Chadbourne, both tagged with Wall Street, were the most insistent advocates of crop limitation and processing taxes, and these proposals had the netire approval of the administraiton’s Left members. In its first few weeks, accordingly, the A.A.A. buzzed merrily along amid hand claps and cheers from all sides. But as soon as the A.A.A. began to formulate codes for agricultural products, the familiar split between Right and Left at once appeared. So far the A.A.A. has approved of a number of regional milk codes (although not a national milk code) and has made progress towards writing codes for tobacco products and retail foods. In each case, the code represents a great advance in the organization of the industry, and in each case all fighting issues are being carefully sidestepped.
Recently there has been a great deal of talk about “the Roosevelt revolution.” Large numbers of people regard Mr. Roosevelt as a daring innovator, who somehow is going to bring about radical changes for the better. Mr. Roosevelt is a man of facil mind, who embraces novel ideas with eagerness, and he is certainly bringing about marked changes, but this correspondent begs leave to doubt that these changes will touch essential parts of our capitalist structure. Just now, except for Mr. James M. Beck and Messrs. Earl Browder and Robert Minor, everyone in the country is ostensibly cooperating with the President. Or, what politically comes to the same thing, except for the Communists, no organized group is openly attacking him. This is a very advantageous position to be in. The only thing which can make Mr. Roosevelt abandon this position, it seems to me, is the rise of a real opposition on either the Right or the Left. Meanwhile, he can cover a great deal of ground by the use of his stilts of the Right and the Left.
By its nature no coalition can last indefinitely. It is possible that the reactionaries of the country may succeed in building up a formidable Right opposition to Mr. Roosevelt in the congressional elections next fall. Such a party would filch away from Mr. Roosevelt his present half-fearful, half-greedily-hopeful Right supporters, and he and his administration would logically be forced definitely to the Left. It will take more than Mr. Ogden L. Mills and his group of moth-eaten Republican hacks, however, to create a serious Right opposition; it will need to be a party stretching far down into the middle class. It is similarly conceivable, particularly if the economic situation grows suddenly worse, that a mass movement of industrial workers, poor farmers and farm laborers might spring up, although unhappily this does not now, despite Mr. Milo Reno, seem likely. In that case, you would find Mr. Roosevelt moving rapidly to the Right.
At least once in conversation with friends, Mr. Roosevelt half-jokingly has referred to himself as Kerensky. Certainly the two men resemble each other in their devotion to the coalition principle. No other head of state in modern times has attempted to maintain a coalition of such widely separated and hostile elements as did Kerensky. It is worth remembering, moreover, that ramshackle as the group was around Kerensky, he succeeded in keeping it together until a real opposition arose beside him, in this case, the Left party of Lenin and Trotsky, which first forced him to the extreme Right and then defeated him. Risky as prediction is, it seems to me doubtful if Mr. Roosevelt will encounter important organized opposition from either Left or Right for many months to come.
Perhaps the most revelatory thing about the mechanics of the Roosevelt administration is the attitude of mind you find in Washington among administration members. Hardly a week passes but you are informed, in great secrecy, that Mr. Douglas is about to resign, that his resignation is written and lying on his desk. Mr. Douglas, you are told, still feels the utmost loyalty to the President, but ence of Mr. Tugwell and “the Reds.” Then a day or so later, you find Mr. Douglas coming out of the White House, face beaming. About that time, likewise in strict confidence, you learn of a meeting of Left-wing members of the administration at which they pledge themselves to resign in a body. Then presently you hear that Mr. Tugwell has been summoned to the White House and that all is well.
You find much the same emotion al pattern among the business men and union labor leaders coming to Washington. At one time, last summer, the heads of the United States Steel Corporation were prepared to defy the administration and throw the question of the N.R.A. codes into the courts. They believed, or said they believed, that Mr. Roosevelt had gone suddenly Communist, and wished to abolish private property. Then matters were talked over with Mr. Gerard Swope, Mr. Walter C. Teagle and the then N.R.A. Industrial Advisory Board, and the steel chiefs began to feel better and decided to go along with the administration. When Mr. Jesse H. Jones, a few weeks ago, told the bankers’ convention in Chicago of the administration’s proposed program of credit expansion, the bankers were ready to lynch him. Lately quiet conversations have been held with Mr. Walter J. Cummings, Mr. Henry Bruere and “the Treasury crowd,” and several of the great New York and Chicago banks have agreed to offer their preferred stock, as the administration wished, to the R.F.C. Labor leaders come to Washington fulminating against the administration and talk to Secretary Perkins and Dr. Wolman, or see Senator Wagner’s mediation boards traveling about the country, and go away puzzled, suspicious but ready to believe in Mr. Roosevelt a little longer.
There is one last suggestion I should like to make. That is that the coalition principle in the Roosevelt administration finds an echo in Mr. Roosevelt’s personal character. We have never had a President with more genuine understanding and friendliness for underprivileged men and women. You will recall his sympathetic treatment of the bonus army last spring in Washington. The appearance of comradeship he has shown on his visits to the Civilian Conservation Camps is wholly sincere. On the other hand, we have never before had a President who chose to spend his vacations on Mr. Vincent Astor’s yacht. It is possible that only when Mr. Roosevelt feels he can touch the men of the bonus army with one hand, and Mr. Astor with the other, can he function at the top of his capacity.