President-elect Barack Obama and his team are modeling their domestic agenda on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Keynesian liberalism. They are seeking to forge a modern, 21st century version of the New Deal. There is, however, one major problem. The original New Deal was a dismal failure.
Mr. Obama recently pledged that his incoming administration would make the largest investment in national infrastructure projects since the late 1950s. Hundreds of billions will be spent on building new roads and bridges, upgrading old school buildings, modernizing hospitals and expanding access to Internet broadband, the so-called information superhighway.
The great myth championed by the American left is that Franklin Roosevelt was a first-rank leader, a bold and decisive president who tackled the Great Depression and defended democracy against totalitarianism. According to most liberals, FDR provided hope and security to a country battered by economic crisis, and visionary leadership in the struggle against fascism.
This myth is so deeply entrenched, even conservatives, such as Conrad Black and Newt Gingrich, praise FDR as one of the seminal statesmen of the 20th century.
Yet, Roosevelt's New Deal failed to engender economic recovery. His massive public works programs, relief aid and burgeoning welfare policies did not reverse the crippling unemployment and rampant poverty of the 1930s. In fact, his tax increases, class warfare rhetoric, stifling regulations and reckless government spending crippled economic growth, job creation and the formation of vital investment capital.
Contrary to FDR's claims, the New Deal did not "save American capitalism," but wrecked it. He established the dangerous precedent of massive government interference in the economy and a rudimentary welfare state - forging a destructive path toward creeping socialism.
FDR's big government liberalism also led to sweeping away traditional values such as self-reliance, civic virtue, individual liberty, limited government and a decentralized, constitutional republic. America has been transformed into a country our Founding Fathers would not only find unrecognizable but repulsive: a nanny-state characterized by confiscatory tax rates, a swollen federal bureaucracy and a citizenry that depends on government largess. The New Deal destroyed more than a free-market society; it destroyed the American character.
In foreign affairs, FDR was a reactive leader, who possessed no ideological or moral core. He cut defense spending throughout most of the 1930s. Instead of championing a policy of rearmament and vigorous containment of German dictator Adolf Hitler - as Winston Churchill did - FDR supported appeasement. He openly welcomed British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich. FDR's incoherent, weak foreign policy only emboldened Hitler and Imperial Japan. The result was another world war, a Europe in ruins and 50 million dead.
FDR's appeasement extended to Soviet strongman Josef Stalin as well. He refused to stand up to the murderous Stalin at Yalta, thereby condemning Eastern Europe to decades of totalitarian communist rule after 1945. Rather than being a vigilant defender of democracy, FDR was a shallow opportunist, whose real-politik multilateralism severely damaged America's national interests and cost countless lives.
His dismal record of failure at home and ruin abroad did nothing to undercut FDR's popularity or prestige. There were several reasons. Like Mr. Obama today, FDR had a fawning and sycophantic press corps, which significantly downplayed - and even ignored - his numerous policy mistakes (and scandals). In fact, the liberal media covered up anything they believed might hurt their man's standing with the voters. Hence, most Americans did not know FDR was physically handicapped and spent almost all his time in a wheelchair. He also mastered the art of propaganda, using his weekly radio speeches - known as "fireside chats" - to spin the public about his supposed accomplishments.
More importantly, the New Deal was never really concerned with reviving the economy. Its objective was more Machiavellian: to cobble together a majority coalition that would win successive elections. FDR was consumed with achieving and maintaining power - both for himself and the Democratic Party. The New Deal was their meal ticket.
In this sense, it was an overwhelming success: From 1932 until 1980, the Democrats remained the country's dominant political force. By throwing money at different constituencies - Southern whites, urban ethnics, union workers, African-Americans (in the North), farmers - New Deal government activism used the public purse to buy off key voting blocs. From its inception, modern liberalism has been more of a political racket than an idealistic enterprise; it has been a power grab by Democratic elites masquerading as a serious attempt to erect a rational, compassionate welfare state.
Now, Mr. Obama is on the verge of completing what FDR started. Like the original New Deal, Mr. Obama's "stimulus" plan will fail to kick-start the contracting economy. But it will target pivotal Democratic special-interest groups: Hispanics, African-Americans, labor unions, blue-collar Catholics, the youth, and environmentalists. It is a naked attempt to exploit the economic crisis to enhance the Democratic Party's appeal - and reach.
Also, Mr. Obama's massive public works program combined with his call for government-run health care, federally funded day care, huge tax increases on corporations and the "rich," direct engagement with rogue states like Iran, Syria and North Korea, and "soft power" multilateral diplomacy will fulfill the liberal project of a transnational, socialist super-state.
The miserable ghost of FDR looms once again on the horizon. Mr. Obama's New Deal threatens to chart the same ruinous course.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times.