Heed the lessons of ’36 and ’48

Brion McClanahan Author, The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution
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A recent Forbes magazine article by Merrill Matthews titled “Obama Campaigning Like It’s 1936” suggests that the class-warfare/tax-the-rich slogans the Obama campaign has been using the past few weeks are straight from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election playbook. If this is the case, and it appears to be, Obama is hoping to catch the same lightning Roosevelt had in his landslide ’36 victory over progressive Republican Alf Landon. Matthews could have also titled his piece “Republicans Partying Like It’s 1948!” Both historical campaigns should serve as a warning for the Republican presidential field and conservative voters at large.

With the exception of rhetoric, there are few comparisons between the end of Roosevelt’s first term in 1936 and Obama’s in 2012. Roosevelt was generally popular leading into the ’36 election, Obama is not, and though there were warning signs that his New Deal programs were not working (they were an abject failure) and that voters were wary of his message of “Give, give, give” and “soak the rich,” Roosevelt could suggest (falsely) that the New Deal resulted in a lower unemployment rate and a better overall economic climate. Obama cannot make the same claim.

Yet, the real issue was not Roosevelt’s tactics in his re-election bid, his performance as president or his message, but the lack of a solid conservative counterweight from Alf Landon and the Republicans. This is where Matthews misses the point. Had the Republicans nominated a solid conservative in 1936, they would have had a better shot at winning the election regardless of how Roosevelt and the progressive Democrats spun the economy. Landon was FDR-light, a so-called “country club Republican,” and thus was unable to capitalize on the cracks in FDR’s demagoguery. Landon followed Roosevelt’s uncle Teddy into the Progressive Party in 1912 and generally supported the New Deal. No one could trust a strong conservative message from a man who never had a strong conservative background. Sound familiar?

The 1936 campaign illustrates the importance of nominating a true conservative, but the 1948 campaign has better parallels to 2012. Republicans made major gains in the House of Representatives in 1946 (as did the Republicans in 2010) and Truman’s political career appeared to be on the ropes (as is Obama’s). Truman was never as popular as FDR, and several policy decisions, including supporting expanded New Deal initiatives such as national health insurance, turned many Americans away from a potential second term. He was so far down in the polls one popular political cartoon had the Republican nominee, Thomas E. Dewey, asking Truman, “What’s the use of going through with the election?” It appeared to be a slam dunk for the Republicans. All they had to do was run a clean campaign and avoid mistakes. Republicans were confident they would be in the White House by 1949. Not so fast. Truman, like Obama, was vulnerable, but this is where Republicans should pay attention.

Thomas E. Dewey received the Republican nomination in 1948 over staunch conservative Senator Robert Taft. Dewey, like Landon in 1936, agreed with the Democrats on virtually every issue. He supported an interventionist foreign policy and the establishment of a United Nations, and favored the New Deal with slight modifications. He was the leader of the liberal wing of the Republican Party, the so-called “Eastern Establishment,” and had little support from the party’s conservative base. Taft on the other hand led the conservative faction of the Republican Party through several bruising fights against the New Deal. The Republicans gained seats in the House in 1946 precisely because of a promise to act on conservative principles (as did the Republicans in 2010). Taft delivered the goods. Dewey was unable to get voters to believe his conservative credentials and the campaign was a disaster. Truman’s last-minute “whistle stop tour” of the United States pushed him ahead in the polls and Dewey lost in a very close election. Taft would have been a better nominee. At least the voters could have believed he was sincere.

If the Republicans continue down the path of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and even Herman Cain, they are playing into the hands of the Obama campaign and are repeating the mistakes of 1936 and 1948 (along with 1976 and 1996 for that matter). Cain has been crowned by the talking heads as the strongest conservative of the bunch, but he has problems unrelated to the recent headlines of sexual harassment. His 9-9-9 plan adds a new tax but does not eliminate the income tax, and he appears unable to articulate his positions on several issues. He has trouble with economic issues, has admitted he knows little about foreign policy and has confused voters with his statements about abortion. His campaign is mostly fluff and no substance.

The Republicans appear to be heading toward another Landon or Dewey, but they can avoid that by nominating a traditional American conservative, and there is only one in the bunch, Ron Paul. If the Republican Party does not heed the lessons of the past, we could again be hearing jabs and gaffs similar to those from 1936 and 1948: “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont” (Landon won only two states in 1936) and “Dewey defeats Truman” (several newspapers printed the election results before the vote was tallied). By choosing a moderate candidate, the Republicans would deserve no better. History has provided fine warnings.

Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009), and the forthcoming works The Founding Fathers’ Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012) and Forgotten Conservatives in American History with Clyde Wilson (Pelican, 2012).