Ironically, it was Franklin Roosevelt—the very president who destroyed the Tammany operation—who adapted its clientelism to national government. This is how the antirepublican practices of urban politics found their way into the national Democratic party. FDR had two purposes in mind with his New Deal: to use the vast regulatory and redistributive potential of the federal government to fight off the Great Depression and to establish a permanent Democratic majority. Whereas Tammany had once been limited to ticky-tacky items like contracts and jobs, FDR could use sweeping legislation like the Agricultural Adjustment Act to buy off the entire Southern plantation gentry at a stroke of the presidential pen.
The problem, though, is that once the door was opened to this brand of clientelism, it could never again be closed. Over the decades, the Democrats have added scores of clients to their operation: trade and industrial unions, African Americans, environmentalists, feminists, govern-ment unions, consumer rights advo-cates, big business, and big city bosses and their lieutenants. All of them are with the Democratic party in part because of the special benefits it promises them when in office, and all have a major say in how the party behaves in government. With more and more clients who needed constant tending, it became harder and harder for subsequent Democratic leaders to focus on the public good. Thus, in the years since FDR’s tenure, the Democratic agenda has looked less like republican liberalism and more like clientele liberalism—big government activism not for the sake of the whole country, but for the sake of the voters whom the Democrats privilege.
And under the Obama administration, clientele liberalism has achieved a kind of apotheosis. The stimulus, the health care bill, cap and trade, and the financial reform package were all designed with heavy input from the party’s clients, and ultimately each reflects their priorities, so much so that any kind of national purpose the legislation might have served was totally undermined.