(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The 2020 Democratic primary election, more than any in recent memory, has been defined by big plans. Elizabeth Warren has led the field in terms of the sheer number of detailed policy proposals. Bernie Sanders has become famous for his bold health-care plan, Medicare for All, and has recently issued sweeping proposals on climate change, housing and other issues. Most of the other candidates have health-care plans, environmental plans, anti-poverty plans and so on.
These proposals are important for several reasons. They help voters to differentiate the candidates and their approaches. They generate ideas that will be useful when it comes time to actually pass legislation. And they remind the electorate of the pressing need to address issues like climate change and health care.
But as German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke famously said, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In this case, there are three forces standing in opposition, -- assuming a Democrat wins the White House. The Senate is likely to be more conservative than any Democratic president, even if the filibuster is abolished. The courts also may rule that some initiatives don't pass legal muster.
And most importantly, economic reality may not accommodate many of these ideas. A single-payer health-care system might not control costs as much as advocates hope. Steep wealth taxes could cause deep declines in asset prices, throwing the economy into recession. Stringent rent-control initiatives might stymie housing construction. Fundamentally, no one knows how the economy will handle big changes, or how competent and effective the government will be at implementing them.
Thus, candidates need more than plans. They need an attitude of pragmatism and flexibility that will allow them to change direction in response to political obstacles and economic missteps. Fortunately, they have an excellent historical example to look to – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.
The New Deal is generally remembered positively, as the force that saved the U.S. from the worst of the Great Depression. The enduring institutions it created -- Social Security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Tennessee Valley Authority -- remain extremely popular. And some elements of the New Deal that were repealed in recent decades -- for example, limits on banking activities and strong support for private-sector unions -- are now rightfully missed.
But the history of the New Deal is replete with reversals, obstructions, half-measures and outright failures. Unlike today’s Democrats, Roosevelt came into office without much of a plan. Instead, what he had was a goal -- to lift the U.S. out of the worst economic crisis in its history, and to correct the inequality that had built up during the preceding decades. The free-market approach had failed decisively, but FDR was no socialist, so he had no pre-packaged ideology to tell him what measures to take. Instead, he decided to try a bunch of things and see what worked, declaring:
The country demands bold persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all try something.
And many of Roosevelt’s ideas failed. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration attempted to raise farmers' incomes by paying them to destroy surplus crops and livestock. But it did little to help poor farmers, and it led to higher food prices for the poor and unemployed. In 1937, thinking that the worst of the Depression was over, FDR cut government spending, which led to a second downturn. The National Recovery Administration created private cartels to regulate prices and wages, but these ended up doing little to help. Many New Deal programs were struck down by the Supreme Court, including the NRA and the AAA; only when Roosevelt threatened to pack the court with extra justices did it relent.
But despite these and other setbacks, Roosevelt and his administration pressed on, often replacing failed or blocked policies with new approaches. When industrial cartels failed to boost employment, Roosevelt provided jobs directly via the Works Progress Administration and other agencies. The austerity of 1937 was reversed. Roosevelt kept up his “bold persistent experimentation,” introducing new policies like higher income taxes, Social Security, freer trade and stronger collective bargaining.
The U.S. economy didn’t fully recover from the Great Depression until the mobilization of World War II. But the New Deal blunted the worst of the crisis, and it created enduring institutions that reduced inequality, built key infrastructure, restrained the finance industry and established the social-insurance system. It successfully changed the way the U.S. economy worked, and paved the way for several decades of rapid, balanced growth.
Today’s Democrats can learn as much from the New Deal’s failures as from its successes. When plans don’t work -- or when they don’t go far enough -- rapid changes of course are necessary. A pragmatic attitude is the key, because sticking to a rigid ideology is a recipe for doubling down on mistakes. Political flexibility is crucial. A president isn't a dictator, and she or he will need creative workarounds and alternatives when opponents inevitably block parts of the agenda. The goal – a stronger, more equal economy – must take precedence over any plan.
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Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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