In 1952, General Dwight David Eisenhower led Republicans out of the political wilderness, returning a Republican to the White House for the first time in 20 years and a Republican majority to Congress for only the third time in 20 years.
Today’s Republicans wander in another political wilderness, troubled by the incapacitated leadership of one of history’s most unpopular presidents and vexed by the loss of their congressional majority.
In 2008, could Rudy Giuliani replicate General Eisenhower’s 1952 victory? Seven historical parallels suggest that he could.
First, Giuliani, like Eisenhower, stands out as an authentic hero as a leader during a major crisis. After Eisenhower’s extraordinary success in leading the allied troops during World War II, both political parties wanted him as a presidential candidate. And today Giuliani is a national icon because of his exceptional leadership in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. As Eisenhower was then, Giuliani is now, the only candidate on the presidential campaign stage who has successfully lead Americans during a major crisis.
Second, Eisenhower and Giuliani share another significant quality – charisma. Giuliani’s magnetic personality, like Eisenhower’s, inspires enthusiasm, interest, and affection. Crowds flocked just to get a glimpse of General Eisenhower in 1952, and today they crowd lecture halls and arenas just to get within the sound of the voice of “America’s Mayor.”
Third, charisma’s political twin, popularity, fits like hand in glove with Eisenhower and Giuliani. People like a winner. Eisenhower exuded a winner’s confidence not only as a presidential candidate, but also during his presidency when he remained popular even while suffering from political miscues. Similarly, opinion polls show that despite Giuliani’s liberal stances on such issues as abortion, homosexuality, and gun control, social conservatives generally hold him in high regard, and many now support him. In 1952 conservatives who supported “Mr. Conservative,” Senator Robert A. Taft (Ohio) for the presidential nomination, set aside their ideological convictions to get on the Eisenhower bandwagon. Already in the 2008 race, the same may be happening for Giuliani.
Fourth, the narrowest of victories in 2000 and 2004 give Republicans pause for 2008. During this decade, Democrats have become more competitive with Republicans in the South, the Sunbelt, and the Rocky Mountain regions, so that a modest Democratic breakthrough in one or more of these areas would return Democrats to the White House. Republicans must counter by becoming more competitive with Democrats in the Northeast. Eisenhower enabled Republicans to win there in 1952, and only Giuliani among Republican candidates appears to have any chance of breaking through into this Democratic stronghold.
Fifth, if Republicans nominate a staunch conservative in 2008, they will risk alienating mainstream America and losing in a landslide, which they did in 1964 with Barry Goldwater. In 1952, Republicans nominated the centrist Eisenhower rather than “Mr. Conservative,” Senator Taft. To date Giuliani appears to be the centrist standard bearer among Republicans, balancing his conservative views on crime and terrorism with his liberal views on a few social issues.
Sixth, Republicans in 1952 offered a balanced ticket, ideologically and geographically, balancing the centrist Eisenhower from New York with the conservative Richard Nixon from California. Should Republicans replicate that approach in 2008, Giuliani would run with a conservative running mate from the American heartland. In 1980, Ronald Reagan not only balanced his ticket with a moderate, George Herbert Walker Bush, but he also gradually moved to the center on a some issues, recognizing that his more extreme positions would not play well with the dominant center in American politics.
Seventh, today’s overriding issue, terrorism and homeland security, puts Giuliani front and center on the presidential stage just as the Korean War did for Eisenhower in 1952. Eisenhower said that if elected he would go to Korea and bring an end to the Korean War. In the matter of terrorism and homeland security, no other candidate rivals Giuliani’s credibility and authority.
For all of this to fall into place, Republicans must have an insatiable thirst to win that causes them to subordinate ideological purity to political practicality. Republicans did that in 1952. Will they in 2008? History could repeat itself.