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Updated 02/24/06

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Post Paints FDR as ‘Moderate’ on Social Security
Story focuses on ‘different legislative styles’ of Bush and Roosevelt. It then ignores enormous differences between then and now.

By Dan Gainor
April 27
, 2005

     The saying goes: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” – especially if they write for The Washington Post. Reporter Dana Milbank did his own comparison of the original debate on Social Security with the current battle. That description painted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as “moderate” and criticized “radical” plans to change the system, similar to the fawning treatment FDR received from the press as president.

     That assessment took three fourths of the Post’s Federal Page in the April 26, 2005, issue of the paper. The article, headlined “Social Security Debate Has Echoes of 1935,” had its own echoes of the 1935 support Roosevelt received from the press as Milbank focused on the Roosevelt “compromise” that was at odds with the most liberal members of his party.

     Essentially, Milbank attempted to redefine the Social Security debate by using 2,000 words to portray Bush on the side of those “who have proposed the most far-reaching changes to the program, pitting him against GOP moderates and virtually all Democrats.” That argument paints any attempt at personal accounts as a radical solution.

     Milbank described the situation as a difference in styles between the presidents: “Roosevelt's struggles in 1935 were in some ways similar to President Bush's attempt to steer a revised Social Security program through Congress in 2005 – but their legislative styles are vastly different.”

     The article tried to describe much of the 1935 battle as a conflict between the two political parties when the Democrats controlled the vast majority of both houses of Congress. In 1935, Republicans made up only 25 percent of the House and 22 percent of the Senate. Milbank downplayed that huge difference. At first, he claimed: “Like FDR's, Bush's party enjoys control of both chambers of Congress, though by smaller margins.” But elsewhere in the story, he was more honest, pointing out that Republicans were “badly outnumbered.”

     Currently, Republicans only hold a slim margin over Democrats in both the House and Senate. While there are 232 Republicans in the House out of 435, there are only 55 Republicans in the Senate – not enough to overcome a Democratic filibuster on any issue. That’s an issue that Roosevelt didn’t have to contend with.

     Milbank turned to liberal historian Robert Dallek to compare the presidents. “Roosevelt sought to cool the passions in his own party, whereas Bush is trying to kindle passion in his party. ‘In 1934, Congress tilted decisively to the left [and] Roosevelt was more moderate than lots of people in Congress,’ historian Robert Dallek said. Bush, by contrast, ‘is more to the right’ on Social Security than many of his GOP colleagues in the House.”

     Milbank’s comparison missed some essential facts that he either glossed over or completely ignored. They include:

  • Milbank emphasized that the Roosevelt “administration worked for 18 months to build support for its approach.” The plan took an additional seven months to move through Congress. Bush, on the other hand, is doing both at the same time and hasn’t even had six months in his entire second term.
  • The Great Depression was a cataclysmic event that required emergency action. Even with that, it took Roosevelt more than two years by Milbank’s tally to take action. By contrast, Bush’s proposal comes at time of economic growth and low unemployment.
  • The article referred to Louisiana Democrat Sen. Huey Long as a “populist” and failed to point out that he had run Louisiana as a corrupt dictatorship when he was governor.
  • Contrary to Milbank’s claim, Bush has proposed compromises and his positions do not reflect the traditional conservative view of Social Security which advocates complete privatization – promoted by groups such as the Cato Institute.

     If Milbank wanted to make historical comparisons, he could have introduced his readers to Carlo “Charles” Ponzi, another famous character from the early 1900s. Ponzi was convicted of fraud for convincing people to invest with promises of outlandish gains. He then used some of the new funds to pay off previous investors. (The rest he used to live the good life.) It was the original pay-as-you-go system. The more investors he had, the more top-heavy his plan was and in 1920 it came crashing down. His name became synonymous with pyramid schemes and, in fact, it is seldom even presented except in the phrase “Ponzi scheme.”


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