Monday, August 08, 2011

Give ’em hell!

You could say that the midterm elections resulted in a shellacking. I’m talking about the 1946 midterm election which resulted in a Republican pick up of 55 seats in the House, giving them a majority. Democrats had controlled the house for 14 years. In the Senate, Republicans gained 12 seats and also took over the majority. The election was seen as a referendum on President Truman.

Two years later, Democrats regained control of congress and Truman, who had ascended to the presidency when FDR died, was returned to office. How did it happen, and what lessons does the 1948 election hold for us today?

In 1948, the Republican nominee was Thomas Dewey, popular governor of the largest state, New York. The easterner was chosen after a contentious convention rather than Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, who campaigned for the nomination as an isolationist. Harold Stassen, the wonder boy from Minnesota, who had knocked out any hopes of Douglas MacArthur’s supporters, could not extend his popularity beyond his Midwest base. When Stassen lost the Ohio primary to Taft, and then lost the first ever nationally broadcast debate to Dewey in advance of the Oregon primary, it was all over but the shouting.

Basically, Dewey’s success was as an eastern establishment Republican. He prevailed against challengers who wanted to abolish many of the New Deal social welfare programs that had been created in the 1930s, which they regarded as too expensive and harmful to business interests. Dewey had previous experience, having been the Republican nominee against Roosevelt in 1944, but he was unpopular with Republicans who considered him cold, stiff and calculating. He was compared to “the little man on the wedding cake,” by Teddy Roosevelt’s socialite daughter.

As you might expect, an incumbent President was the odds-on favorite to win the nomination of his party. However, Truman was not without detractors. Liberals were not enthusiastic supporters of Truman – the Progressive party had their own nominee, former Vice-president (under FDR) Henry Wallace. Nor was the Democratic Party popular in what had been called the solid south. Because of Truman’s support of civil rights, the southern Democrats peeled off and formed the States Rights Democratic Party, aka the Dixiecrats. They nominated Strom Thurmond.

Given the three way split in the Democratic party, and the fact that the Republicans had taken control of both houses of the United States Congress as well as a majority of state governorships during the 1946 midterm elections by running against Truman, it came as no surprise that public-opinion polls showed Truman trailing Republican nominee Dewey, sometimes by double digits, after the Democratic convention.

Interestingly, the conventional wisdom had it that the front-runner after the conventions would be the eventual winner. Accordingly, little attention was paid to polling in the run-up to the election, with the result that the 1948 election is remembered as one of the greatest upsets in the history of electoral politics.

Today, the talking heads are saying that Obama’s most likely opponent is Mitt Romney and that the President is a slight underdog. As of this writing, Intrade, the on-line betting site, calculates only a 54.8% chance of Obama winning.

The comparison between Romney and Dewey is obvious. Both are not beloved of the Republican Party. While Dewey was considered “calculating,” Mitt Romney’s flip-flopping is legendary. Basically, he will say whatever he expects his audience wants to hear. Although Romney never received his party’s nomination, he does have the experience considered necessary to get it this time. To do so, Romney will have to prevail over the most conservative elements in his party including crazies from Minnesota, who want to turn back the clock on the New Deal.

Moreover, in the general election, Dewey was so sure of victory that his strategy was basically “take no chances and don’t blow a good thing.” In its execution it amounted to speeches filled with mealy-mouthed assertions of the obvious, including the now infamous quote “You know that your future is still ahead of you.” Although Romney has made more aggressive statements about his putative opponent, he has a history of back-tracking and flip-flopping that leaves his words with no more gravitas than Dewey’s. Consider how long it has taken him to come up with a snappy retort to the fact that Obama-care was patterned after his program in Massachusetts. Has he yet?

And what of the comparison between Harry S-for-nothing Truman, and President Obama, who has been accused of standing for nothing? Truman was an unelected incumbent, while Obama – who won decisively in 2008 – has never been considered fully legitimate by certain elements in the country. It is foolish to discount the existence of racism in the Old South, but suffice to say, the old Dixiecrats are now Republicans.

It is widely reported that Obama faces a serious enthusiasm gap, but it is hard to imagine that it is any worse than the abandonment by the left that Truman experienced. Truman’s Democratic base in the solid south split off from the party. It is hard to think of Dems similarly walking away from Obama, especially since many in Obama’s camp are Black, and he remains overwhelmingly popular with them. Someone is sure to remind the African-American community that not too long ago—in Romney’s lifetime—the Mormon Church openly discriminated against those whom they regard as bearing “the mark of Cain.” Furthermore, many bigoted voters in the South have as much of a problem with Romney, whom they regard as un-Christian, as they do with Obama.

But Obama may have a problem that Truman didn’t. It’s the economy. Unemployment is at 9%, the credit worthiness of the United States has been downgraded. The deficit is large and recent kerfuffle regarding the debt ceiling has made lots of folk antsy for lots of reasons. As I write these words, investors are awaiting with dread the opening of the market on Monday morning.

Congress is so dysfunctional that Sen. Dick Durban (D-IL) commenting on the 14% approval rating said he was surprised that congressmen had so many relatives. And herein lies the reason the Obama should follow Truman’s example.

The key element of Truman’s re-election campaign was to run against that 80th Congress, whom he described as “do nothing, and good-for-nothing.” Truman’s attack was caustic and unrelenting. He toured the country and everywhere he went, enthusiastic crowds shouted, “Give ’em hell, Harry!” Although there were no debates in those days, nor even television, American movie theaters agreed to play two newsreel-like campaign films in support of the Republican and the Democratic nominee. Truman was strapped for campaign funds and so he relied upon public-domain and newsreel footage of him taking part in major world events and signing important legislation. For undecided voters, the Truman film reinforced the image or the President as being engaged and decisive.

Truman simply ignored the fact that Dewey's policies were considerably more liberal than most of his fellow Republicans, and instead he concentrated his fire against what he characterized as the conservative, obstructionist tendencies of the unpopular 80th Congress. If you think Romney will not move back to the center after his flirtation with the extremist elements in his party, you’re naïve. But if you are right, Obama is a shoe-in.

The problem with this advice is the same problem that condemns all good advice. To be useful, it must be heeded. Obama came to national prominence as an orator who extolled the fact that there is “not a blue America, or a red America, but only a United States of America.” He has tried to be the great compromiser, and this tendency may have been his undoing in the recent debt ceiling negotiations. He has tried to appease the right, appeal to the center and hold on to the left.

President Obama believes in the basic goodness of the American people, and he wants to govern from the middle of the road. But as Dan Rather in his inimitable way, pointed out today, “The only thing in the middle of the road is yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” So Mr. President, stand up and fight for what Americans believe in.

Give ’em hell, Barry! And remember what President Truman said: “I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

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