Following recent news reports that Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold or possibly Howard Dean, the feisty former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, would likely mount a challenge to President Obama in 2012 — stories that were promptly denied by both Democrats — speculation continues to swirl about a potential challenge to the President from his party’s progressive wing.
One possibility is that of somebody like Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor whose immense talents are largely being wasted in academia and who may find it increasingly difficult to sit on the sidelines while the country‘s recession-ravaged economy continues to rip the heart out of America’s endangered and dwindling middle-class.
While it’s increasingly likely that the politically-battered President, struggling to cope with the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, will probably face a somewhat spirited challenge for his party’s nomination in 2012, Uncovered Politics decided to take a look at a similar intra-party challenge faced by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was also dealing with a fragile and shaky economy at the conclusion of his first term in 1936.
Though he faced limited opposition from U.S. Rep. John S. McGroarty, who headed a slate of Townsend delegates in the California primary in early May, and a similar left-wing effort by novelist and ex-Socialist Upton Sinclair, who had briefly returned to politics following his stunning primary triumph in California’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign to half-heartedly head a delegate slate comprised of remnants of his End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement, FDR’s most serious challenge within his own party came from conservatives.
Unlike Obama some 75 years later, Roosevelt’s most worrisome — and formidable — challenge came from his right flank in the potential candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Joseph B. Ely, a self-described Jeffersonian Democrat and close ally of New York’s Al Smith who declared that he would run against Roosevelt as a “favorite son” in that state’s spring primary.
The 55-year-old Ely, who had been out of office for two years, later had a change of heart, admitting that it would be impossible to defeat the New Deal in Massachusetts.
With Ely out of the picture, Roosevelt was virtually assured of his party’s nomination. He faced only token opposition from Col. Henry S. Breckinridge, a former assistant Secretary of War in Woodrow Wilson’s administration. A conservative Democrat, Breckinridge was a prominent member of the rabidly anti-New Deal American Liberty League, a right-wing organization heavily funded by the Du Pont family.
A Princeton and Harvard-educated lawyer, Breckinridge, who was once captain of the U.S. Olympic fencing team, had practiced law in New York City since 1922. He also served on several corporate boards. The 49-year-old Breckinridge also served in the 5th U.S. Air Command during World War I and prior to that served as chairman of the Committee for the Relief of American Citizens in Europe.
A trusted advisor and longtime friend of Charles A. Lindbergh, Breckinridge had served as the famous aviator’s lawyer during the heart-wrenching abduction of Lucky Lindy’s 20-month old son in 1932, acting as an intermediary in the ransom negotiations. In fact, in discovering his missing son’s body, a distraught Lindbergh notified Breckinridge before calling the police.
One of FDR’s most outspoken critics, Breckinridge was also something of a third-party adventurer, having formed the Constitutional Party in New York two years earlier from which he waged an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate against two-term Democratic Sen. Royal S. Copeland.
Breckinridge garnered a paltry 24,241 votes in that race, finishing a distant fifth — far behind Socialist Norman M. Thomas and German-born Max Bedacht, a barber-turned-revolutionary journalist who ran on the Communist ticket, but ahead of the Law Preservation Party’s William Sheafe Chase and Olive M. Johnson of the Socialist Labor Party.
Never a Roosevelt admirer, Breckinridge had previously managed Harry Byrd’s pre-convention campaign in 1932, and seconded the conservative Virginian’s nomination for president at the Democratic national convention in Chicago.
The following year, the largely-forgotten New Yorker served as counsel for a joint congressional committee investigating dirigible disasters. (Curiously, however, Breckinridge — one of the country’s foremost experts in that field — was never officially consulted when the Hindenburg burst into flames at the Lakehurst, New Jersey, mooring on May 6, 1937.)
Breckinridge was unrelenting in his criticism of Roosevelt. The President’s “economy of scarcity,” he said, “was based on the bright idea that the less you produce, the richer you get, and if you produce nothing you will be as rich as Croesus,” the wealthy, self-indulging sixth century King of Lydia. The retired colonel believed that FDR’s New Deal policies had destroyed millions of jobs, asserting that his “economic folly” was responsible for at least a third and perhaps as much as one-half of the nation’s unemployment.
There had really been two depressions, Breckinridge asserted in his campaign kick-off speech in Maryland. The first depression, he said, started in 1929 and was nearing an end in the summer of 1933 when Roosevelt’s “second string professors, a motley array of men without distinction in the academic world” suddenly thrust the experimental New Deal program on an unsuspecting American public, resulting in an ever-deepening depression.
It was a depression within a depression, he claimed — an economic calamity of Roosevelt’s own making.
Breckinridge charged that the nation’s real economic experts, such as Harvard-educated James P. Warburg, the youngest chief executive on Wall Street who advised Roosevelt on monetary matters, had left Washington shortly after FDR embraced the New Deal. The son of Paul Warburg, father of the Federal Reserve, the 37-year-old Warburg wasn’t some sort of wild-eyed theorist, asserted Breckinridge, but a tried and true economist schooled in the everyday fluctuations of national and world markets.
Denouncing Roosevelt’s economic policies as “unconstitutional,“ Breckinridge assailed the Democratic chief executive for fomenting class hatred.
Coming from a fellow Democrat, those were pretty strong words.
Hoping to rally other anti-New Deal Democrats to his cause, Breckinridge, an unapologetic states’ rights advocate, accused the Roosevelt administration of replacing thousands of civil service employees with “political henchmen and the enlistment of a mercenary political army of 300,000 to consume the diminishing substance of the people.”
Determined to thwart the ever-increasing authority of the federal government, Breckinridge strongly urged the states to use their constitutional powers to promote economic and social justice, rather than leave it up to bureaucrats in Washington.
Nobody could quite figure out who was behind Breckinridge’s improbable candidacy. To be sure, there was no shortage of speculation. When he first entered the Ohio primary, pundits were convinced that he was put up by the American Liberty League, but league spokesmen vehemently denied it, saying that while they were willing to go to almost any lengths to stop the New Deal, they drew the line at the Breckinridge candidacy.
Others speculated that former New York Gov. Al Smith or possibly John J. Raskob, the wealthy former General Motors executive who had helped bankroll Smith’s presidential campaigns in 1928 and 1932, may have put him up to it, but those rumors were never substantiated.
The first candidate for the presidency to travel almost exclusively by airplane, Democratic voters gave Breckinridge the cold shoulder in the few primaries in which he competed.
Despite spending a week in the state, flying from one city to another, the New York attorney garnered a dismal 35,351 votes in the April 28 Pennsylvania primary while finishing nearly 685,000 votes behind Roosevelt.
Accompanied by Baltimore attorney Thomas F. Cadwalader, who served as his campaign manager, Breckinridge campaigned vigorously in Maryland a week later, spending $3,274 in the state while actively speaking in almost every county. Despite the enthusiastic backing of the Association for the Defense of the Constitution, as well as the support of numerous Liberty Leaguers, Breckinridge polled a disappointing fifteen percent of the vote in that beauty contest, losing to Roosevelt by a margin of 100,265 votes to 18,150. He didn’t win a single delegate.
The Maryland primary came only a day before Roosevelt slaughtered Sinclair and McGroarty in the California primary, amassing 790,235 votes to Sinclair’s 106,068 and McGroarty’s 61,391.
The hapless Breckinridge polled only six percent of the vote in Ohio on May 12.
But he kept fighting.
As the only candidate on the ballot, the high-water mark of Breckinridge’s candidacy occurred in the little-noticed New Jersey primary on May 19, when he garnered 49,956 votes to 11,676 write-in votes for Roosevelt. As it turned out, it was a hollow victory; FDR had already captured the state’s 32 delegates.
In all, more than 136,000 Democrats in four states voted for Roosevelt’s little-known challenger.
Throughout the primary season, Breckinridge tried in vain to force the President to tell the American people how he would govern during his second term — to tell them whether his administration would continue to move to the left or govern toward the center — but Roosevelt, a masterful politician, refused to play along, declining to even acknowledge his opponent’s existence.
Roosevelt and his advisors were far more concerned about a potential third-party challenge later that year, led by the troubling triumvirate of radio priest Charles Coughlin, Francis E. Townsend and the rabble-rousing Gerald L. K. Smith.
Failing to win a single delegate, Breckinridge dropped out of the race long before the Democrats convened later that summer. Refusing to attend the Democratic national convention at Philadelphia’s historic Convention Hall, Breckinridge later actively campaigned for the GOP’s Alf Landon.
“The people have spoken,” wrote Breckinridge sarcastically after FDR trounced Landon by nearly eleven million votes, “and in the fullness of time, Roosevelt will tell us what they have said.”
Excerpts from Darcy G. Richardson’s forthcoming book, OTHERS: Third Parties During the Great Depression, the fifth in a seven-volume series on independent and third-party politics in the United States.