Can George W. Bush Learn from Harry S. Truman?

John E. Moser

November 1, 2006

Harry Truman’s White House could not have been a happy place on the morning after the 1946 midterm elections. After having dominated the federal government for the past fourteen years, Truman’s Democratic Party had been soundly defeated, with the Republicans picking up no fewer than fifty-five seats in the House of Representatives and twelve in the Senate. Immediately GOP leaders such as Senator Robert Taft of Ohio began talking about the imminent rollback of the New Deal, and a Republican capture of the White House in 1948.

Although many Democrats despaired of the 1946 results, Truman was not among them. He realized that his party’s defeat had far more to do with temporary phenomena—postwar inflation in particular—than it did with any real enthusiasm for the Republican agenda. He recognized that the GOP was deeply divided between moderates and conservatives, and that the latter—the Republican base—held views that were far out of the mainstream. Thus while his foreign policy is remembered today for its bipartisan support, his approach to domestic issues was to take off the proverbial gloves. He wagered that if the GOP attempted a head-on assault against the New Deal it would cause a split between moderates and conservatives—and that the American public would fall squarely into the former category.

The next two years would prove Truman almost entirely correct. No substantial rollback of the New Deal occurred; indeed, with the exception of the Taft-Hartley Act, an admittedly substantial revision (and no doubt improvement over) the labor legislation of the 1930s the Roosevelt legacy remained largely undisturbed. The president made liberal use of his veto pen, and lost as many battles as he won, but the framework of the welfare state withstood the Republican charge.

All of this suggested a possible strategy for 1948. Truman, who by this time was facing considerable pressure from his own party—part of its left-wing broke away to support Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, while many southerners threw their support behind the “Dixiecrat” Strom Thurmond—took the offensive against the Republicans. Rather than let his congressional opponents go home to their districts to campaign for reelection that summer he called Congress into special session. He submitted a series of bills that he believed the American electorate supported—and which the Republicans had already rejected during the past year-and-a-half. These included a vast program of public housing construction, an increase in the minimum wage, an expansion of Social Security, and federal aid to public schools. And—exactly as Truman expected—each of these went down to defeat. The president registered his disappointment, and Congress adjourned.

At this point Truman’s reelection campaign went into high gear with its famous “whistlestop tour,” in which he traveled some 32,000 miles and delivered hundreds of speeches. The tone of each was the same—the “do-nothing” 80th Congress had an opportunity to carry out the people’s will, but, beholden as they were to special interests, the Republican majority had chosen not to act. He almost never referred to his opponent, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, but continued to hammer away at Republicans in Congress. The strategy worked; on Election Day Truman was returned to office with an Electoral College majority of 303 to Dewey’s 189, and his party regained control of both Houses of Congress—by a margin of 54 to 42 in the Senate, and 263-171 in the House.

Can Truman’s example offer some hope to the Bush White House? Perhaps. Certainly the 1946 elections were even more of a debacle for the Democrats than last week’s midterms were for the GOP. Moreover, as had been the case in 1946, the opposing party’s victories were less the result of a groundswell of support for the policies of Howard Dean, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi than they were a reaction against perceived stagnation in Iraq and corruption on the part of certain GOP politicians. If George W. Bush is half as effective a political strategist as his supporters believe, he will take every opportunity over the next two years to remind the American electorate—and, indeed, the moderates in the Democratic Party—that a deep gulf divides their views from those of the Democratic base. Specifically, a wise strategy between now and 2008 might involve the following:

  1. Submit balanced budgets. One of the themes of the campaign was that the Republican Party has abandoned its commitment to fiscal responsibility. What this implies, of course, is that the Democrats are somehow committed to it. Of course, they cannot be; there are too many special interests that their party needs to satisfy. By submitting balanced budgets, the president has an opportunity to call their bluff.
  2. Invite Democrats to join in developing a bipartisan strategy for Iraq, as well as for foreign policy in general. The Democrats are smart enough to realize that if they respond with a John Murtha “get out now” approach they will be fully discredited in the eyes of the public. Polls certainly show that Americans disapprove the current handling of Iraq, but this doesn’t mean that they’re ready to give up on it. By working with the Democrats with an eye toward eventual disengagement, it will make it difficult for them to use Iraq as an issue in 2008.
  3. In domestic affairs, keep hammering on popular Republican themes. The White House should constantly be sending Congress legislation to reduce taxes, to crack down on illegal immigration, to ban gay marriage, and to homeland security. Don’t worry that Republicans themselves are divided on these issues, because most likely they won’t pass; most proposals will never find their way out of committee. The Democrats simply cannot let them do so, for fear of alienating their base. And when they fail, don’t hesitate in 2008 to talk about the “do-nothing 110th Congress.”

  4. Drop, or at least soft-pedal, the issue of embryonic stem cells. A lot of conservatives feel strongly about it, but it’s far too easy for the Democrats to portray them as unfeeling, obscurantist “theocons.” There will always be a Christopher Reeve, or a Michael J. Fox, to serve as a rallying point—and questioning the motives of the physically handicapped, as Rush Limbaugh did with Fox, is not a winning strategy.

Would such a strategy allow the Republicans to retake Congress, and hold on to the White House, in 2008? It’s difficult to say. Much of the answer will have nothing to do with what the president does, but rather will revolve around who the parties’ candidates will be. A big part of Truman’s success in 1948 can be attributed to the blandness of Tom Dewey, whom H.L. Mencken famously called “the little man on the wedding cake.” But by continuing to remind voters that their priorities are ultimately not those of the leaders of the new Democratic Congress, Bush can help to increase the chance that, sixty years hence, historians will view the 2006 elections in much the same light as they do the 1946 elections today—as an epiphenomenon.

John Moser is an associate professor of history and Ashland University.