Modern politics can be summed up this way: Republicans frequently refer to Ronald Reagan, while Democrats prefer to conjure memories of Franklin Roosevelt.
Roosevelt’s New Deal rescued the nation from the Great Depression with economic reforms and bold individual measures including Social Security. But it was FDR’s unfinished business 75 years ago that profoundly inspires Democrats now seeking the presidency.
In his State of the Union message on Jan. 11, 1944, Roosevelt outlined what he called a Second Bill of Rights, “under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race or creed.” Among the provisions: “the right to adequate medical care,” “a good education,” “the right to a useful and remunerative job” and “the right of every family to a decent home.”
For Democrats in the current campaign these are bedrock themes. Sen. Bernie Sanders has reissued his Medicare for All plan, with the support of Senators Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren. “Health care is a human right,” Warren and Sanders declare in their standard stump speeches, echoing the sentiments of FDR.
“I am running to declare education is a fundamental right,” said Harris, joining a field that widely supports one form or another of free or low-cost college, universal pre-K, and better pay for teachers.
Booker has introduced legislation to establish a federal jobs guarantee program. He believes every American has the right to a job “and that right has only become more important” in today’s marketplace, he maintains, where unemployment is low but many Americans still struggle to make ends meet.
The other day Bernie Sanders gave a speech in Washington in which he called for a “21st century economic Bill of Rights” that would ensure the right to health care, higher education, a decent job and affordable housing. It was pure FDR. “Together with organized labor, leaders in the African-American community, and progressives inside and outside the party,” Sanders recalled, “Roosevelt led a transformation of the American government and the American economy.”
Sanders was three years old when Roosevelt outlined his Second Bill of Rights. He’s been championing such programs since entering public office in 1981 as mayor of Burlington, Vermont.
The only thing separating Sanders from FDR - and the 22 other Democrats running for president - is the single word “socialism.” Sanders calls it “democratic socialism” and says it is “the unfinished business of the Democratic Party.” He’s right. Yet, it is also the crux of how conservatives seek to stir fear and confusion about progressive policies.
Sanders reminds us of words President Harry Truman once spoke: “Socialism is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the American people have made in the last 20 years.”
Hours after Sander’s speech Republican Sen. Marco Rubio released a video saying democratic socialism “is incompatible with our American values.” The GOP National Committee fired off emails titled “Bernie [hearts] socialism,” ending with the line “so do his 2020 comrades.”
The eventual Democratic nominee would probably be wise to avoid the term socialism, made toxic by Donald Trump and his enablers - not because it’s wrong, but because it’s a distraction.
Roosevelt, who was elected president four times, noted in 1944 that liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” The nation will be best served if FDR’s vision for expanded economic rights is finally approved by voters in 2020.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.