F.D.R. and L.B.J. might have been great cleanup hitters -- and you'll get no argument from me that Obama's aptitude at shepherding his agenda through Congress has been mixed, at best. But they basically spent the first several years of their Presidencies playing in the Congressional equivalent of Coors Field. Considering how dramatic the impact of the loss of just one Senate seat has been on both the perception and the reality of Obama's agenda, that needs to be kept in mind when drawing the comparison.
In the session when FDR had his greatest majority, 1937, the Senators from the following states were all from the Democratic party,
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
In other words 28 of the 76 Democrats were actually Dixiecrats from the old Confederacy - or border states sympathetic to the Confederate cause. . A caucus with 37% old south membership paints a far different picture than what Silver's initial analysis demonstrates.
While Senator Robinson of Arkansas was Majority Leader and an ardent FDR supporter (up until his death in the summer of 1937) it was actually southern Democrats who led the charge to defeat Roosevelet's court packing scheme. That plan was a centerpiece of the Roosevelt agenda after the 1936 election and its failure was a huge blow to the President.
Liberals today rightly complain when Republicans make comparisons between the bi-partisan deal on Medicare that LBJ formed as opposed to Obama's health care package. We know full well that past bi-partisanship was directly attributable to the fact that the parties were each a mixture of conservative and more progressive forces for much of the 20th century. You can't compare today's Democratic or Republican caucus to their counterparts of the mid 1930s or 1960s because the parties didn't fit into clear ideological boxes.
If it's wrong for Republicans to obfuscate on this point in order to tear down the current process it's wrong for liberals to do the same to defend the current process.