Historian Richard Hofstadter once characterized the New Deal as “a chaos of experimentation.” Fresh ideas were constantly tossed on the wall to see what stuck. They didn’t always work, but this spirit of experimentation was an attempt to address the central problems plaguing Americans at the time.

The National Industrial Recovery Act led to higher prices and ultimately overstretched the bounds of federal authority, but it set a minimum wage and forced big businesses to collaborate with one another to get out of the Depression. The WPA didn’t cure unemployment, but it was an ambitious experiment that allowed 3.3 million people to put food on their tables. Contrast this effort with our recent Congressional debates over whether we should extend unemployment insurance an additional thirteen weeks (a proven solution) or pass any kind of stimulus package “quickly.”

Today’s policy experiments are profoundly insubstantial, offering the smallest of ideas to counter the most peripheral of challenges. The annual State of the Union address is a perfect example, where we all wait with bated breath to see which idea of microscopic import will be floated with much fanfare. One year it was steroids in baseball (well, I guess Congress thinks this is really important too). This year the President spent more time talking about earmarks than he did discussing the home mortgage crisis devastating the nation’s economy, despite the fact that earmarks are only half of 1 percent of the budget. The right wing’s devotion to small government is reflected not just in spending limits but in its limited imagination of what government can do.

But the GOP isn’t alone. There is a certain brand of Democrat, who came to power in the ’90s, who revels in policies about school uniforms, mandatory 401(k) plans and tax rebates–as if school uniforms can fix the profound problems facing public education. Look at the Senate Democratic Policy Committee’s “Fresh 50” report and you’ll find limiting gift card expiration dates, a “Hire Heroes” public-service campaign to put returning veterans to work and a plan to develop 25,000 Super Principals to ship out to our neediest schools. These ideas are good ones. I applaud the Senate Democrats for acknowledging that generating new ideas is an important function of government. But these ideas are inoffensive and marginal, and don’t directly tackle the major issues of the moment.

This approach–one that organizations like the DC-based Third Way perpetuate–is dangerous because it conflates political strategy with policy impact, appealing to moderates with small, innocuous ideas. The reason Americans of all stripes loved FDR wasn’t because he offered culturally neutral and politically safe proposals but because he was fighting to better their lives.

Ultimately, much of this comes down to balancing the role of government and that of business and corporations. The New Deal grappled with–and ultimately failed to resolve–this central dilemma of democratic governance. New Dealers themselves were divided and spent too much time trying to intuit the motives of business. But if we can get back to the heart of this issue, we can create a legacy even greater than that of the New Deal.

To do so, we will have to recognize that the greatest lesson the New Deal has to offer us is about the spirit of our government itself. As FDR put it, “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, 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.”

We need our leaders to recapture the urgency of the New Deal era, an enthusiasm for experimentation that attempts to address Americans’ core challenges and not just win elections. Without that spirit, even a Democratic White House will be a failure.

Other contributions to the forum:

Bill McKibben: A Green Corps

Michael J. Copps: Not Your Father’s FCC

Eric Schlosser: The Bare Minimum

Frances Moore Lappé: The Only Fitting Tribute

Adolph Reed Jr.: Race and the New Deal Coalition

The Rev. Jesse Jackson: For the ‘FDR’

Andy Stern: Labor’s New Deal

Anna Deavere Smith: Potent Publics

Sherle R. Schwenninger: Democratizing Capita

Stephen Duncombe: FDR’s Democratic Propaganda

Howard Zinn: Beyond the New Deal