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26 August 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:59pm

From the NS archive: The Democratic convention

27 July 1940: On Franklin D Roosevelt's chances of winning a third presidential term.

By Harold J Laski

The Democratic convention of July 1940 resulted in Franklin D Roosevelt being nominated to run for a third term, an unprecedented achievement for a US president. The political writer Harold J Laski wagers here that this was in part due to the conviction among voters that nobody could handle “these next grave years” of the war with more authority or knowledge. But Roosevelt himself was reportedly doubtful: he desired a return to private life. In this article Laski considers Roosevelt’s renomination, weighing up his and his opponent Wendell Willkie’s chances of success.


The triumphant renomination of Mr Roosevelt at Chicago is primarily due to three causes. It was clear that no other man had any comparable hold on the party, much less, as the public opinion polls had shown, upon the nation; any possible alternative, except Mr Hull, might easily have split the party, and it is pretty certain that Mr Hull shared the general view that the president must be “drafted” by the convention. It was due, secondly, to the belief that Mr Willkie will make a good candidate, and that the Democrats needed their best available man to beat him. It was due, thirdly, to the rapidly growing conviction among, above all, the independent voters that no one can handle these next grave years with anything like the authority or knowledge of the president. If, so far, he has been a good deal ahead of his public opinion, each day of the war narrows the distance between them.

Mr Roosevelt will enter the campaign with two handicaps operating against him. The first, and the one most certain to be fully exploited, is the tradition against the third term. There is no doubt at all of its depth; and there will be many voters for Mr Willkie on that ground alone. But it will count for much less than at any previous time for two reasons. First, the war has made the folly of slavish devotion to any mechanical tradition grimly obvious; and, second, the proceedings at the convention itself will have convinced many with whom the tradition might otherwise have weighed that Mr Roosevelt has genuinely accepted nomination out of devotion to public needs, and not in service to private ambition. I am speaking with real knowledge when I say that up to almost the eve of the convention, some of the president’s most intimate friends were afraid that he could not even be “drafted”, so strong was his personal preference for a return to private life.

His second handicap will be the intensity of the support, financial and otherwise, that big business will give to Mr Willkie. Big business does not so much fear a third term for the Democratic Party; it fears a third term for the New Deal, and the New Deal is Mr Roosevelt. This means the danger to the forces of big business that all its major measures – the Securities Act, the Labour Relations Act, the Wages and Hours Act, the control of public utilities, the development of the great national power schemes – will become a part of the national tradition in the US. If these are the known dangers, how much more, in the domestic field, do they not fear the unknown, the expedients that may be devised by those acute minds round the president who are bold enough to think that big business should be below the law, and not above it? There will be no limit to the pressure big business will put upon its constituency to play for “soundness” and Mr Willkie – that is, to put big business once more in a position where its influence is secure.

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Mr Roosevelt, on the other hand, has some trump cards in his hands. The first, and the greatest, is the extraordinary and growing revival of his personal prestige. This is mainly the outcome of the realisation of how right he has been in the measure he has taken of the war, and how sound have been the general lines of his direction of American policy in the international sphere. Mr Willkie has no effective criticism to make of these, and the question obviously arises in the voter’s mind: can an untried and inexperienced man do so well? The second trump card is that Mr Roosevelt has made government in these eight years genuinely interesting to the ordinary man because he has related it to the ordinary man’s interests. What do the Republicans offer instead? A desiccated version of the New Deal, suited to the palate of the Economic Royalists. That is why Mr Roosevelt, despite the antagonism, due to personal pique, of John L Lewis, will keep the full strength of the Labour vote, and, with the important backing of Mr HA Wallace as his running mate, pretty nearly the full strength of the farmer’s vote. Labour will be held by the prospect that the New Deal will go on; and the farmers will be held by the knowledge that Mr Wallace always gave them a square deal. Mr Willkie may retort that he comes from the “hoosier” State of Indiana; it is a simple and, I suspect, an effective reply, that the tenderness of his own company, the Commonwealth and Southern, for the farmer’s interest in cheap power development, was not its most outstanding feature.

And, above and beyond all this, there is the sense that Mr Roosevelt is a world-figure, in the way in which Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson were world-figures. He knows how to make articulate the hopes of those silent millions who hate tyranny, whether it is that of the dictator in Berlin or Rome, or those more hidden, because less personal, autocracies whose habits have been grimly revealed in the stark pages of the La Follette Report. The Duponts will be for Mr Willkie, Mr Ford and Mr Girdler and Wall Street; the “Two Hundred Families” of the United States somehow do not sound like the bead-roll of American democracy. Mr Willkie will not be able easily to escape from the burden of their support; and Mr Roosevelt is a skilful enough campaigner, even in the limited effort he will be constrained to make as candidate, to see that he does not escape. And what he does not directly indicate, the redoubtable Mr Ickes, who knows how to call a spade a spade, will effectively drive home.

To some extent, obviously, the course of the election will depend upon events in Europe. But those events, I think, will not do more than affect the size of Mr Roosevelt’s majority. Mr Willkie will do better than Mr Landon in 1936; he is a more robust type of candidate, and his party, in its extremity, will fight harder. I think it is a safe prophecy that Mr Wilkie will carry without fail the irretrievably Republican fastnesses of Maine and Vermont, together with Pennsylvania; I think it possible that he will win his own State of Indiana (though Mr Landon could not hold Kansas in 1936), Oregon, Connecticut and Minnesota, and he may carry Wisconsin also, if Senator La Follette decides that he needs Republican influence there for his own re-election to the Senate. Beyond that figure, I think his hopes are small indeed. His main object will be to make himself indispensable to the Republican party with a view to 1944.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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