Roosevelt who? 2020 Democrats steer clear of talking history

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

When Elizabeth Warren ended her bid for president, she spoke to campaign staff and signed off with a line that connected the Democratic senator from Massachusetts to one of the most famous politicians in the history of her state, Ted Kennedy.

“Our work continues, the fight goes on, and big dreams never die,” Warren said

It was clear echo of the famous closing lines in Kennedy’s 1980 speech at the Democratic convention, after he had ended his own presidential campaign: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Elizabeth Warren. (Erin Clark/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The reference by Warren was noteworthy because of how unusual it was. Modern politicians talk less and less about the traditions and legacy of their own political parties. Joe Biden’s rise in the Democratic primary shows this might be a misjudgment. 

“When I was working full time in politics, everything was a kind of reference to the past,” said Eli Attie, a writer for the TV series “The West Wing” who also worked as an aide and speechwriter for Al Gore. “We’ve kind of lost all connection to that and I think that’s a mistake. That’s where the politicians might be, but I don’t think that’s where most voters are.”

Warren did give a series of speeches that touched on history, but all of them were connected to protest and reform movements. Her speech to 20,000 people in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park last September commemorated the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, which killed 146 workers and spurred workplace safety reforms. 

That was a one-off speech, and afterward Warren delivered a handful of set-piece speeches that referenced moments in protest and grassroots organizing history. That legacy informed her core message, which cast her as the new leader in the fight to protect workers and elevate the lower and middle classes.  

However, it neglected appeals to older Democrats who still remember figures like Ted Kennedy, and who are likely to have more party loyalty than younger voters. 

“I wonder if there’s a bit of a misreading of the electorate based on Trump, the assumption that people want everything to be kind of radical and new,” Attie told Yahoo News. “There’s a lot of people who spent 20, 30, 40 years in the trenches for Democrats and supporting Democratic presidents, and they don’t want to erase that.”

Warren, Attie said, “has a lot in common with Ted Kennedy. She should have been invoking him more. She’s progressive and iconoclastic and has signature issues she works on but who works within the system to get things done.”

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, gave a speech last June that defined democratic socialism — the label by which the Vermont senator identifies himself — as essentially the modern-day application of principles first set out by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“Over 80 years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made transformative progress in protecting the needs of working families. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion,” Sanders said. “This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.”

But Sanders rarely if ever mentions FDR in his stump speech. References to the Green New Deal — a plan to deal with climate change and carbon emissions — are far more common than any mention of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

“There is this funny thing about insisting on calling yourself a democratic socialist, whereas if he just called himself an FDR Democrat every would know what he meant, it wouldn’t put a target on his back and it wouldn’t rankle so many Democrats,” said Dan Schwerin, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. “It may not, however, be as sexy to his base of younger voters.”

Bernie Sanders. (Tim Vizer/AFP)

 Eddie Vale, a veteran Democratic communicator who has worked in organized labor, agreed that there is “much less” emphasis on the past in modern politics, “with the exception of maybe some bigger set-piece speeches like a nomination, convention, State of the Union.”

“What seems to work and connect the best with people is personal, not just talking about policies but having the candidate or group connect it to a personal story that they have experienced,” Vale said. “People are less trustful and participatory of the political system and historical institutions.”

But as Biden has rocketed to the lead of the Democratic primary, he has used a term that does point back in time, but not too far, calling himself an “Obama-Biden Democrat.”

“If Democrats want a nominee who’s a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, a proud Democrat, an Obama-Biden Democrat, then join us,” he said in Dallas the night before the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries. “We need to build a coalition and a legacy of one of the most successful presidents of our lifetime, Barack Obama, and we’ll do this by bringing the country together.”

Biden is much more of a traditionalist than someone like Sanders, in part because he does not frame his candidacy in terms of being anti-establishment. And these references to Obama-Biden Democrats are more than a reference to the past. They are an identification with the Democratic Party itself, and to party politics in general.

“Biden’s resurgence suggests there is still a fondness for Obama’s legacy. You hear a lot of Democrats say that the fact that Bernie isn’t a Democrat rankles them, and you hear a lot of people say we should at least nominate a Democrat,” Schwerin said. “They don’t like that Bernie is so critical of Democrats and refuses to call himself a Democrat.”

But Vale argued that even this reference by Biden to Obama is an illustration of how references to the past are rarer than ever. Obama only left office a few years ago, Vale noted, and was seen by Democrats “as less political,” less partisan and less a creature of party politics.

That is part of the cross pressures for Democrats in this presidential election: There is great energy among the more progressive elements of the party, but it is moderated by the overriding No. 1 goal of most Democrats, which is to beat President Trump.

“We’re kind of in a moment,” Attie said. “There’s a Bob Dylan quote about being torn between dying and being born. There’s an old style of politics that needs to evolve.”

But, he added, “We’ve been around for a while and as a party and done a lot of good things, and many people who are reliable voters don’t want to erase that overnight.”


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