Nearly 80 years later, President Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, has declared a “season of war” to push out problematic Republicans in midterm elections, just as Roosevelt tried to do to balky Democrats. But Roosevelt’s purge backfired. Not only did he fail to take out his targets, but he also emboldened them, all but dooming his domestic program for much of the rest of his presidency.
Whether Mr. Bannon’s purge will be more successful has become the consuming question in Washington these days.
.. said he might rein in Mr. Bannon’s planned assault on Republican incumbents. “Some of the people that he may be looking at, I’m going to see if we talk him out of that, because, frankly, they’re great people,” Mr. Trump said.
.. he called three incumbent Republicans —
- John Barrasso of Wyoming,
- Deb Fischer of Nebraska and
- Roger Wicker of Mississippi
— to assure them of his support in next year’s midterm elections.
.. voters resented the intervention and repudiated him by re-electing nearly all of his Democratic rivals.
.. “His attempt to purge the party of conservative Democrats proved to be a serious mistake,” said Robert Dallek, whose biography “Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life” will be published next month. “He lost every primary contest except one, and 60 percent of the country disapproved of his purge.”
.. Roosevelt’s purge was part of a desire to force a party realignment.
.. In those days, both parties had liberals and conservatives. Roosevelt in effect was trying to make the Democrats the more uniformly liberal party while leaving the Republicans as the conservative party. He would fail, but in decades to come, that realignment would eventually occur on its own.
.. “His goal was two responsible, unified parties to replace, as he said, ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ parties,” said Susan Dunn, a Williams College historian and author of “Roosevelt’s Purge,” the definitive book on the 1938 election. “To me, Trump’s purge is only about vindictiveness. He wants to strike out at and defeat the people who have dared to criticize him.”
.. Mr. Rove, who has sharply criticized Mr. Bannon’s efforts. “The lesson is it’s better to try to influence by encouragement than by opposition,” he said. “It’s important to keep focused on the main things people want you to keep focused on — what are the big issues of the day? And don’t let your personal pique guide your political actions.”
.. The confrontation came to a head when he sought to pack the Supreme Court by adding as many as six more justices to seize control of the bench, an idea that provoked fierce opposition in both parties and ultimately collapsed.
.. Roosevelt put together a team to organize a campaign against the conservative Democrats. The newspapers called it the “elimination committee” and labeled the campaign Roosevelt’s “purge,” a reference to Stalin’s terror in the Soviet Union.
.. He took on conservatives like Senators Walter F. George of Georgia, Ellison D. Smith of South Carolina, Millard E. Tydings of Maryland and Guy M. Gillette of Iowa. Mr. Smith, a fierce segregationist known as “Cotton Ed,” despised Roosevelt and referred to the New Deal as the “Jackass Age.” But Mr. Smith and the others won anyway.
.. “The good news for history,” he said, “is that this embarrassment taught him an important lesson: Don’t get too far out in front of the American voter, a lesson he applied just two years later as he carefully laid the groundwork for America’s entry into World War II.”