Advancing a Free Society

Give ‘Em Hell … Barry?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

He’s borrowed liberally of late (pun intended) from Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. – evenRonald Reagan.

But if there’s one comparison President Obama most certainly welcomes it’s this one: Harry Truman and the 1948 election.

The similarities: Truman hopped on a train, set out on a 21,000-mile, 250-city “whistle-stop campaign”, and assailed the “do-nothing” Republican Congress; Obama this week hopped on a $1.1 million bus, set out on a three-star tour (Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota), and berated the GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.

(Though the trip supposedly isn’t political, it would seem the White House made at least one very political decision: stopping the bus in town and counties that aren’t economic eyesores.)

For a presidential campaign that hasn’t lacked reference points – is Obama a doomed Carter or a buoyant Reagan? – Truman and 1948 is a tempting analogy.

Both incumbents were kicked to the curb in earlier midterm elections – Republicans regaining control of Congress in 1946 (just the House, for the GOP, in 2010) and a majority of the nation’s governorships in both campaign cycles.

And Truman, like Obama, had troubles dealing with a disenchanted left – in 1948, some liberals defecting to Henry Wallace’s new Progressive Party. It became a three-way split when disaffected conservative southerners founded the “Dixiecrat” movement.

But to say that 2012 is 1948 redux?

Let’s stop the buck here.

First, consider where the two parties stand then and now.

Truman’s victory in 1948 was the fifth in a row for his party – the two-decade Democratic era of 1932-1952 the sandwich meat for two decades of Republican rule (1920-1932 and 1952-1960).

This generation is more volatile: Karl Rove envisioned a Republican dynasty that lasted all of eight years; James Carville predicted a Democratic generation that may not get past year four. If Obama does earn a second term, it won’t be because – like Truman – his party enjoyed an institutional advantage.

Second, the Democratic principals.

Truman was an “accidental” president – short in stature, supposedly doomed by party infighting. In other words: everything America looks for in a scrapper and an underdog.

Obama, taller in physical stature, an elected president, and supposedly a transformative figure destined for a spot on Mt. Rushmore and federal currency, is anything but a sympathetic underdog.

In April 1951, Time Magazine declared Truman “The Little Man Who Dared” – in this instance, daring to fire Douglas MacArthur. If there’s a consistent complaint from within his party, it’s that Obama hasn’t been sufficiently daring.

Let’s call it: Truman’s “give ‘em hell” vs. Obama’s “what the heck”.

Third, the Republican principals.

The 1948 election produced New York Gov. Thomas Dewey – the same GOP nominee who lost to FDR in 1944 (Dewey also seeking the presidency in 1940 and 1952).

The dream candidate, he wasn’t: Dewey had a disturbing penchant for empty rhetoric (“You know that your future is still ahead of you”), and was famously dismissed by Alice Roosevelt Longworth as “the little man on the wedding cake”.

Say what you will about the current field of Republican hopefuls: the 2012 GOP nominee won’t come anywhere close to Dewey in terms of being shopworn, bland and overconfident (do you see the New York Times writing the same headline – “Thomas E. Dewey’s Election for President Is a Foregone Conclusion” – for Rick Perry, Mitt Romney or Michelle Bachmann?

Fourth, “do nothing” then and now. It’s not an original thought for a Democrat struggling to find his stride (in July 2000, a born-again populist Al Gore set out on a seven-state campaign swing, taking his best swing at a “do-nothing-for-the-people Congress”).

The problem for Obama: the U.S. Congress, with a record-low 13% approval rating, is run by Republicans and Democrats. If the President chooses to bash obstructionist Republicans, he also has to defend his own party for failing to produce a budget when it controlled both chambers – Congress having stalled on a spending plan now (840-plus days by the week’s end) for roughly as long asLeningrad was under siege (900 days) in World War 2.

By November 2012, American could be reliving the 1948 experience more so in substance than style – specifically, the closeness of the election.

Truman carried California, Ohio and Illinois each by less than 1%. Put those three states and their 78 electoral votes in the GOP column and it’s a Dewey victory. Give Dewey two of those states and matters would have been settled by the House (the Dixiecrats having carried four southern states).

Truman won the popular vote by 2.2 million votes; he nearly lost the electoral vote – still a Democratic nightmare in 2012 and beyond

The bottom line: Barack Obama can emulate Harry Truman all he likes – two-mile walks, rubdowns and a shot of bourbon before breakfast, late-night stag poker parties, and the occasional threat of violenceagainst those who hurt his loved ones.

But to turn the 2012 campaign into a replay of 1948? Only in that, if his political fortunes continue to decline, Obama may have to make good on this Truman quote:

“If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”

(photo credit: Lord Mariser)