Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About Party Infighting


President Trump may use Twitter to lash out at Republicans who differ with him on, say, health care. But he's not the first chief executive to fight with his own party - far from it. Our co-host Steve Inskeep has been examining how past presidents have dealt with internal political divisions.


Franklin D. Roosevelt used the radio. In 1938, the Democratic president was frustrated by conservative Democrats in Congress. He spoke in support of more liberal primary challengers to those Democrats even though he said as president he normally should stay above all that.


FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: As the head of the Democratic Party, however, charged with the responsibility of carrying out the definitely liberal declaration of principles set forth in the 1936 Democratic platform, I feel that I have every right to speak in those few instances where there may be a clear-cut issue between candidates for a Democratic nomination involving these principles or involving a clear misuse of my own name.

INSKEEP: Franklin Roosevelt, 1938. Let's ask Cokie about presidents and their parties because every week Cokie Roberts takes your questions. And she's with us once again.

Hi, Cokie.


INSKEEP: First, a president normally should stay above all that - that's going to be a foreign concept to people watching politics today.

ROBERTS: Well, of course, in the really early days, presidents didn't even campaign. It sort of gradually evolved that they got to this point. But he certainly didn't stay above it. He engaged in what was called his purge campaign against conservative Democrats, and it was pretty much a disaster for him, Steve.

None of the senators he opposed lost. Only one House member did. Republicans picked up seats in both the House and Senate. So Franklin Roosevelt's foray into partisan politics had the effect of weakening him more than strengthening him as president.

INSKEEP: And I'm guessing from what you're saying, there must have been Democratic senators who he opposed who ended up back in Congress the next year. How'd that work out?

ROBERTS: Yeah, well, you can imagine. One in particular, Walter George of Georgia, a very powerful member of the Senate - FDR had gone out and campaigned against him saying let me make it clear he is and I hope always will be my personal friend.

Well, George didn't see it that way. And years later, Jim Rowe, who had been Roosevelt's chief of staff, told me this wonderful story that the leadership of the Senate was meeting about some bill. And some members said, the president is his own worst enemy. And Walter George said - not as long as I'm alive, he's not.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK. Little lesson of history there for the current president just to think about what the history says.

We've got some questions from the audience here. This comes by way of Twitter from Darren Sowards. And the question is - (reading) how should an opposition party operate effectively if a president is met with resistance from his or her own party? - which President Trump has met some of.

ROBERTS: Well, I assume what's meant here is the opposition party, meaning the Democrats.


ROBERTS: They have two choices. They can just sit back and enjoy the disarray among their opponents, or they can take the opportunity to isolate the naysayers in the majority party and work with the rest of the majority party to actually get something done. And moderate Republicans, for instance, played that role for many, many years when the Democrats controlled Congress. But as you...

INSKEEP: Oh - so the Democrats would be divided. But that meant that the Republicans in the minority got to be the swing vote.

ROBERTS: That's right - and could work with the Democrats to actually get legislation done. But not these days, Steve. The polarization we've talked about so often makes that almost impossible to cross the line.

INSKEEP: One more question here from TJ Voit. And the question is - (reading) historically, has there been a time when a third party has ended a stand-off between the major parties?

ROBERTS: Basically, no. We don't have much by way of third parties in our history. But they have affected legislation. The Prohibition Party, which started in 1869 - took 50 years, but they got the 18th Amendment prohibiting alcohol passed in 1919. Of course, it was later repealed.

In living memory, Ross Perot garnered 19 percent of the vote in 1992, running against the federal deficit. And Congress got much more interested in that issue once he got such a large vote. And in fact, when Bill Clinton won the presidency, he achieved our last budget surplus. So it can make a difference to have third parties pushing on the two major parties.

INSKEEP: A lot of interest in how to break gridlock in Washington even now. Cokie, thanks very much.


INSKEEP: That's commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how Washington works, about how politics work by using the hashtag #AskCokie on Twitter or just by emailing us at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.