E.J. Dionne: Hoover vs. Roosevelt?





Hope versus fear, new versus old: Barack Obama and John McCain have placed their bets. These are the terms on which the 2008 presidential campaign will be decided.

That's why it's unfair for political bystanders to attack Obama and McCain for offering few specifics as to how they'd fix an ailing economy. And it's foolish to ask them to jettison their campaign promises in order to pay homage to the God of Balanced Budgets.

Each campaign has given voters ample notice about the inclinations, temperaments, habits, philosophical leanings and advisers they would bring to the White House. That's enough.

Piles of prescriptions would be useless because this crisis is moving so fast. New ideas could become obsolete in a few days -- or require substantial redrafting on the run, as happened with McCain's sketchy mortgage purchase plan floated during Tuesday's debate.

In this financial catastrophe, last week's unthinkable idea quickly becomes this week's imperative. The Bush administration is wisely contemplating following the lead of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in having government take ownership shares in many banks to get them more cash and allow them to lend again.

If Obama had suggested such a thing, he would have been condemned as a socialist and the administration might well have had to shelve a necessary idea. Better that the candidates acknowledge that they are powerless until after Nov. 4.

As for cutting back on their programs because the government is spending and lending so much to save the economy, the candidates should just say no to the deficit carpers....

In recent days, Obama has painted himself as calm, pragmatic, open and hopeful. He seemed to be channeling FDR when he told a crowd in Indianapolis on Wednesday: "This isn't a time for fear or for panic. This is a time for resolve and steady leadership."

As for McCain, his campaign is trying to sow fear and panic about Obama. That's exactly what Herbert Hoover tried to do with Roosevelt. Days before the 1932 election, Hoover attacked Roosevelt's "inchoate new deal." He predicted it would "crack the timbers of the Constitution" and warned voters to beware of the "glitter of promise."

Hoover stopped short of declaring Roosevelt a celebrity. But Donald A. Ritchie reports in his excellent 2007 book, "Electing FDR," that Hoover saw Roosevelt as "his weakest and most vulnerable" foe and "did not respect him as a political rival." McCain conveys unmistakably that he feels the same way about "that one" running against him....


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