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Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

FDR’s 1936 Convention Speech and the Transformation of the Democratic Party

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Acceptance Speech, Democratic National Convention, June 27, 1936.

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On June 27, 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency. The 1936 election was critical for FDR – it was not enough to win re-election, he was also determined to use the campaign and his personal popularity to strengthen the Democratic Party. As Miller Center Democracy and Governance Studies Director Sidney M. Milkis has documented in his book, The President and the Parties, while FDR sought to effect structural changes within the Democratic Party, he also used the 1936 re-election campaign to define a new understanding of government.

Perhaps the most important organizational achievement within the party was the abolition of the two-thirds rule, which was adopted in 1932 and required the support of two-thirds of the convention delegates in order to be nominated as a Democratic presidential or vice presidential candidate. The rule originated in the South to protect its interests from Democratic candidates unsympathetic to its problems. While the Roosevelt administration sought to assure party regulars publicly, FDR closely directed DNC Chairman James Farley to work behind the scenes to change the nomination rules. The efforts centered on encouraging state parties to pass resolutions against the two-thirds rule and stacking the membership of the rules committee, which would report the recommendation to the Philadelphia convention.

FDR’s acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention captured the essence of the New Deal creed, which Roosevelt had first articulated in the Commonwealth Club address in September 1932. Progressive reform constituted a redefinition of the foundation of American politics and pronounced a new understanding of individualism that conceived of the state as the guarantor of programmatic rights. In his acceptance speech, FDR took a stand against economic despotism and reaffirmed the need for a new definition of the social contract within a changing social order:

The brave and clear platform adopted by this Convention, to which I heartily subscribe, sets forth that Government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.

In addition to reaffirming the New Deal manifesto, Roosevelt’s Philadelphia convention speech also intended to rouse New Deal supporters for a militant partisan campaign. FDR sought to curb the most abusive practices of business by ameliorating conditions of economic inequality:

Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place…

An old English judge once said: "Necessitous men are not free men." Liberty requires opportunity to make a living-a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.

A Brokered Convention?

President Ford’s Acceptance Speech at the Republican National Convention, 1976 (Excerpt)

Over the last few weeks, there has been lots of media chatter about the possibility of a brokered convention for the Republican Party. Sean Trende in Real Clear Politics wrote about how a brokered convention could be dangerous for the Republicans, while The Week looked back on the 1976 Republican convention as the last time the party flirted with a brokered convention. And Nate Silver pointed to the 1976 Republican nomination contest as the primary battle most resembling today’s.

A brokered convention would happen if no candidate won a majority of delegates during the first round of voting at the convention. After the first ballot if no candidate had a majority, the delegates would be released to vote for another choice, and the backroom dealing could begin.

The last time the Republicans had a true brokered convention was in 1948, but in 1976 the Republican Party had a strong primary fight between President Gerald Ford and Governor Ronald Reagan of California. Ford and Reagan engaged in a bitter and close fight for the nomination in 1976, trading victories in a series of state Republican primaries. Ford entered the Republican National Convention in Kansas City with a slight lead in delegates over Reagan.

As the incumbent, President Ford had courted wavering Republican delegates in key states by inviting them to the White House, by offering to speak in their states, and by rewarding delegates with patronage positions. Ford won the nomination on the first ballot but only by a mere sixty delegate votes.

Watch President Ford acknowledged the hard-fought primary contest in this excerpt of his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on August 19, 1976.

Watch President Ford's full acceptance speech.
Watch Ronald Reagan’s speech at the 1976 Republican Convention