"Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity," Franklin Roosevelt intoned in 1936, "than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference."
Spoken at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, these words could be confident as the watch words of the Democratic party ever since.
But over the years it has been challenged, not only by Republicans but Democrats. In 1996, Bill Clinton bizarrely stated with some glee "the era of big government is over." On that fateful day, he consigned 60 years of Democratic policy to the ashcan with a phrase. Indeed, it has begs a question that Dwight Eisenhower's advisor Arthur Larson posed to the GOP: "What are we for?"
Although the Democratic party claims to be the party of labor, it has done precious little for this group. It has become dependent on white collar unions, whose relationship to the battles of the 1930s is remote. Clinton signed NAFTA and Barack Obama continues to tout the virtues of free trade. Before that, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson pursued the same policies. Jimmy Carter was the champion of deregulation that frayed the Blue Collar even more.
Since the 1960s, the Democrats have emphasized "rights" issues. Although this is beneficial, it is limited. The party is a set of building blocks placed together often unevenly. Each group has to be addressed - but some have done better than others. Obama's signature issue is LBGT rights: first his abolition of "Don't ask, don't tell" and then his endorsement of gay marriage. This is consistent with the general direction of the party since the 1960s.
But left out of this is a core constituency: the working middle class. One of the stunning revelations of July's job report was that 47 percent of the workforce actually worked full time. This is a direct repudiation of the goals of Johnson's Great Society. His vision was that America's workforce could have a steady job and would be able to take "Molly and the baby" on a nice vacation. The mix and match of today's job market wasn't what LBJ had in mind.
Today Democrats do not question the scratch-and-crawl nature of the economy, they maneuver around the margins. Their main supporters are the professional upper middle class, with all their enlightened attitudes but none of the realities of today's struggling workers. Even Obama has couched every reform with "market forces" being the first prerequisite to satisfy.
Without much sympathy from the party, former Democrats have sometimes embraced Republicans because of their traditional values. Rejecting what George Wallace called the "exotic" left, they have leaned on conservatism as a protection from the turbulent winds of change.
Democrats could at least nod to those in distress and at least offer something spicier than "hope" in order to melt the frozen ice of government.