Election 2012: Echoes of Truman’s 1948 Campaign

Ken Blackwell

12/5/2012 12:01:00 AM - Ken Blackwell

Editor's Note: This column was coauthored by Bob Morrison.

Many of our friends continue to register shock at the election returns of last month. How can it be?, they ask. It’s not so hard to figure out, we reply. The first Romney bumper sticker that appeared last year bore a startling resemblance to another famous corporate logo. What were they thinking? The first bumper sticker for the President’s re-election said simply: “ObamaCares.” Brilliant. We are not saying that President Obama does actually care about “people like me.” But voters polled on that question chose Mr. Obama over Mitt Romney by a whopping 81-18 margin. That’s fatal in politics.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Henry Olsen shows that voters want a President who cares about them. This certainly helped the GOP when Ike swamped the cold and cerebral Adlai Stevenson, when Reagan trounced Carter and Mondale, and when George W. Bush beat sighin’ Al Gore and windsurfing John Kerry.

The 2012 election resembled Harry Truman’s come-from-behind “Give `em Hell” campaign of 1948. That year, too, Republicans could almost taste victory. They had taken over Congress for the first time in a generation on a TEA party-like slogan: “Had enough?” The Republican 80th Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act—which organized labor hated—over Truman’s veto. Labor unions then were a much greater slice of the workforce.

Truman had few enthusiastic partisans. The late President Franklin Roosevelt’s son, Jimmy, a California Congressman, even tried to dump Truman at the party’s Philadelphia convention and run Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in his place. Ike nixed all such efforts. “I’m just mild about Harry,” was a slogan of the Democratic Left. It played off the popular hit: “I’m just wild about Harry.” The Republicans told the rest of the country: “To err is Truman.”

But Truman was a scrapper. He didn’t mind winning ugly. Braving the opposition of his universally admired Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, Truman recognized the State of Israel just minutes after it declared its independence. He issued an Executive Order de-segregating the armed forces. He increased farm subsidies.

And he pushed class warfare at every opportunity. Sen. Robert Taft—the hero of Republican conservatives—dismissed Truman’s incessant campaigning “at every whistle stop” in the Midwest. Tens of millions of Americans still lived in whistle stops and took the frosty Ohioan’s words as reflecting a Big Business disdain for the little guys in those little towns.

That year, too, Republicans nominated a moderate Northeastern Governor, Thomas E. Dewey of New York. He had run once before, and been rejected, but now, with the economy in the tank, the GOP felt it could not lose. Dewey confined himself to innocuous bromides, rarely departing from his text. Stiff and formal, he was described by Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice as “the little man on the wedding cake.”

Once, though, when his campaign train suddenly lurched backward into a crowd of well-scrubbed Dewey backers, the Governor ad-libbed: “We’re going to take that engineer out and shoot him.”

Democrats seized on the quote as evidence that Dewey was out of touch with Joe Sixpack. “That’s what they do to workers in the USSR,” they howled, playing on the blue collars’ known suspicion of communism.

Throughout Election Night, famed radio commentator H.V. Kaltenborn assured his listeners that Dewey would pull ahead “when the rural counties are counted.” We saw a memorable repetition of this episode when Karl Rove challenged the Ohio count and pursued FOX News’s Megyn Kelly right down to the computer stations. It was as if the White Rabbit had chased Alice.

In the end, Truman’s win at any price strategy proved successful. Although there were a million and a half fewer votes cast in the 1948 two-party contest then there had been, amazingly, in the wartime election of 1944, Truman got 1.5 million fewer votes than an obviously stricken FDR had gained in his last campaign. Still, Truman edged Dewey by more than two million popular votes and more than 100 Electoral Votes.

One of our friends reported the day after the 2012 election that his lawyer daughter, who is personally pro-life but politically pro-choice, voted at 2:00 pm on Election Day. At 2:20, she got a text message on her iPhone from the Obama campaign thanking her for voting. Would she kindly contact six of her FaceBook friends and urge them to vote, too?

We should never forget: In government, liberals move and breathe and have their being.