President Franklin Roosevelt threw a mean fast ball.

Roosevelt 2016 Isn't So Far-Fetched

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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I'm a huge fan of Alyssa Rosenberg, but she's on the wrong path today by claiming (echoing Ken Burns and others) that none of the Roosevelts -- Teddy, Franklin or Eleanor -- could be elected president today.

The counts against FDR appear to be the wheelchair and his wealth. The latter is preposterous. Republicans have nominated nothing but plutocrats from political families over the last 25 years (with the exception of Bob Dole. I suppose John McCain is a borderline plutocrat, having married into wealth, and from a borderline political family; there are no arguments about George Romney and the Bushes). The Democrats have shown no aversion either to dynastic candidates (Al Gore) or very wealthy ones (John Kerry); and they appear to be about to nominate someone who is both a plutocrat and a kind of dynast.

What about polio? In Texas, we're about to elect a governor who uses a wheelchair, Attorney General Greg Abbott. It doesn't seem to have slowed his rise within the Republican Party, and as best I can tell it's irrelevant to his electoral prospects. Now, gubernatorial campaigns aren't the same as presidential ones, but I don't see any reason to believe that using a wheelchair would prevent anyone from getting a presidential nomination. In fact, I think it's probable that Abbott will wind up on a presidential ticket, and maybe in the top slot, someday. And anyone who can be nominated by a major party can win the presidency.

Teddy Roosevelt, we are told, was "too hot for TV." Perhaps. But it's not clear at all that different types of media favor different types of politicians, as opposed to the same politicians merely altering their style to suit the dominant medium. There surely were more rumpled senators in the 1930s than there are now (Carl Levin and Sherrod Brown notwithstanding). But odds are that most of those 1930s senators were capable of combing their hair and finding suits that fit and would look good on television.

At any rate, if the correct comparison group for FDR is candidates who won -- or, better, were finalists for -- presidential nominations, then the correct comparison group for TR is politicians who have been chosen to fill the second spot on the ticket. If so, TR wouldn't have stood out as incapable in group that includes Spiro Agnew, Geraldine Ferraro, Dan Quayle and the Sage of Wasilla.

As for Eleanor Roosevelt, her chances for the presidency would be infinitely higher today than during her lifetime. Ken Burns says that for "Eleanor, there would be all the issues that women are unfairly saddled with, attractiveness and whatever suitability for national office." To whatever extent that is true (and I tend to think the answer these days is not very much), it's certainly much less true now than it was then.

The lesson of the nomination and election of Barack Hussein Obama is pretty simple: Presidential nominations, and therefore the presidency, are open to far more people than during the first half of the 20th century. It's possible that a few of the old restrictions remain, but the old idea that the presidency was only for a very limited group of citizens is dead and gone.

In fact, the main reason to question whether FDR and TR would have been presidents in the 21st century isn't whether they would have been excluded; it's whether they could have survived all the competition from people who really were excluded back then.

  1. Or John Edwards, though he might be said to be the kind of Bob Forehead that we're supposed to get constantly thanks to the way TV supposedly rewards blow-dried "good" looks, even though we've also had Joe Biden, Lloyd Bentsen and Dick Cheney.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net