Why President Eisenhower Represents the Right Model for GOP Revival
It’s true that the American people are fundamentally conservative – but not in the angry, doctrinaire sense suggested by so many of my fellow radio ranters. Americans are conservative in temperament, but not necessarily in ideology. We are cautious, practical, skeptical folk, inherently resistant to sweeping, radical change—whether such change issues from the left or the right.
At the moment, the liberal true-believers who control both White House and Congress present the most potent, plausible threat of precisely the sort of jarring and dangerous transformations the people reliably reject. This offers Republicans a precious opportunity to re-connect with America’s deep-seated conservative instincts and to revive their battered party – unless they blow that chance with strident, unbending, purist appeals of their own, convincing the puzzled public that both parties have abandoned pragmatism and common sense.
Formulas for Victory, Prescriptions for Disaster
Recent political history shows a clear and consistent public preference for flexible problem solvers over embattled ideologues. For some fifty years, presidential elections have been mostly close – with ten out of the thirteen winners held to 54% or less of the popular vote (and five of them actually winning with less than a majority). Only three times since 1960 did candidates win in one-sided blow-outs, and in each of those races (LBJ’s triumph in ’64, Nixon’s in ’72, and Reagan’s in ’84) the opposing nominee looked like an impractical, reckless, wing-nut extremist. Barry Goldwater even embraced the title extremist (“extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”), George McGovern’s anti-war crusade offered an unapologetically leftist platform, and Walter Mondale proudly promised in his convention speech that he would raise the nation’s taxes. Their pathetic performance as major party nominees (winning 39%, 38% and 41%, respectively) showed the powerful national reflex against any candidate or party perceived as out of the mainstream, tilting too far in one direction or another.
By contrast, all three of the Democrats who have won the presidency since 1968 (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) campaigned as level-headed centrists, who pledged to build bi-partisan coalitions and to bring the country together. All three, however, governed with progressive tendencies and leftist associates that undermined their carefully crafted moderate images. Jimmy Carter in particular emerged as a sanctimonious scold, favoring impractical, inflexible liberal nostrums in both foreign and domestic policy that made him an easy target for the amiable, common sense appeal of Ronald Reagan. Though rightly embraced as a great conservative hero, Reagan’s 1980 campaign went to great lengths to appeal to the wary middle-of-the-roaders who decide every election. He chose a conspicuous moderate as his running mate (George H. W. Bush) and framed the campaign’s key question (“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”) to make the other guy look scary, extreme and dogmatic. In the end, Reagan won an election in which self-described conservatives made up only 28% of the electorate (according to exit polls), while “moderates” were 46%. In fact more than 60% of the voters who placed The Gipper in the White House called themselves “moderates” or even “liberals,” showing the classic inclination to support an impressive candidate who seems to transcend ideology rather than to exemplify it.
Despite pipe dreams of an unwavering right wing majority ruling the electorate, the highest percentage of voters who actually call themselves “conservative” occurred in 2008, when 34% chose that description (Exit polls showed precisely the same percentage in 2004 and 1996). Meanwhile, the number of “moderates” who cast ballots ranged from a low of 42% (in 1984) all the way to 50% (in 2000).
Bill Clinton tried to appeal to these swing voters by emulating Reagan’s optimistic “I’ll-fix-the-mess” campaign when he ran against the floundering George H. W. Bush in 1992, posing as a sensible “New Democrat” rather than a by-the-book liberal in the McGovern-Mondale-Dukakis mode. In his first two years, however, miscues like the clumsy push for gays in the military and the “Hillary Care” disaster gave the lie to his pretensions of centrism, leading to the historic sweep for Newt Gingrich and his resurgent Republicans. The Contract With America that made that political earthquake possible (giving the GOP 55 more seats in the House and eight new Senators) was a cunningly devised document that emphasized reformist “good government” promises (Balanced Budget Amendment, Congressional Term Limits, Welfare Reform) and scrupulously avoided polarizing (if worthy) pledges that might have seemed extreme (abolishing the income tax, a human life amendment, eliminating major government departments).
After this smashing Republican victory in ’94, perceptions of the two parties quickly switched, With the government shutdown (widely if unfairly blamed on Gingrich, rather than Clinton) over budgetary struggles, the triangulating President won the image battle as more flexible and pragmatic, while the professorial Republicans (both Gingrich and his chief deputy Dick Armey had backgrounds as brilliant academics) came across as more interested in principles than practicality. In his re-election bid, the chastened Clinton (remember “The era of big government is over”?) easily sailed to victory, and also blithely triumphed over his seemingly rigid prosecutors during the protracted impeachment crisis.
George W. Bush succeeded Clinton not as the fire-breathing right wing purist his opponents tried to caricature but as a self-styled “compassionate conservative” pledged to bring a new spirit of cooperation to the divided capital. In debates and on the stump, he offered an aw-shucks, ordinary guy appeal (paradoxical for the son of an ex-president) that contrasted with the stiff, self-righteous, shrill persona of Al (“Prince Albert”) Gore. His decisive response to 9/11 allowed him to win re-election as “a uniter, not a divider” (over John Kerry, a humorless Massachusetts patrician and unwavering liberal). But ceaseless Democratic attacks on Bush as “the most extreme conservative president in American history” finally combined with GOP Congressional scandals to give Nancy Pelosi the speakership in 2006, and Barack Obama the presidency in 2004.
The GOP’s Obama Opportunity
Obama used the classic winning formula in 2008: seeking the nation’s highest office as an open-minded problem solver, willing to use conservative as well as liberal ideas to address the nation’s woes. The 2004 convention keynote speech that made him a national figure overnight promised no more “red states” or “blue states,” but only “the UNITED States of America.” In his presidential campaign, the imprecise and soothing talk of “hope” and “change” did little to impress conservatives (who voted for McCain by a ratio of four to one) but drew a decisive 60% of the self-described “moderate” vote. The polls show that those same moderates and independents have now turned against President Obama with a vengeance, giving Republicans their historic opportunity.
In contrast to his gauzy promises of hope and healing, Obama and his Congressional allies have governed as divisive devotees of the hard left -- willing, for instance, to risk economic and budgetary disaster for the sake of realizing the leftist dream of “universal health care.” Pollsters show mounting opposition to Obamacare not because the public rules out every form of governmental activism as a solution to major problems but because the people distrust big, dogmatic schemes to remake reality all at once.
Why Like Ike?
The Republicans can win back the Congress in 2010 and the White House in 2012, if they highlight the Democrats’ fanatical commitment to liberal orthodoxy, and if they avoid seeking to replace it with a rigid orthodoxy of their own. In preparation for the coming political combat the GOP should continue to learn from Reagan (who never sanctioned purges or tests of doctrinal purity when it came to party building) but should also recall the triumphant example of an comparably popular Republican leader, Dwight David Eisenhower.
When Ike won the GOP nomination in 1952, the Republicans had lost five presidential elections in a row -- and all of them by decisive margins. They had also lost nine of the ten most recent Congressional elections (for both houses), falling to an all-time low of 89 House seats and 17 Senators (1937-39). Miraculously, Eisenhower not only led the GOP to their first Presidential victory of a generation (442 to 89 electoral votes) but swept his party to control of both houses of Congress. His leadership kept the Republicans close to parity in both houses until the last two years of his second term, and enough of his popularity rubbed off on his chosen successor Richard Nixon that the charismatically-challenged Vice President battled John F. Kennedy to a virtual tie in the popular vote in 1960 (49.6% to 49.7%).
The people revered Eisenhower (and certainly would have given him a third term had he not been constitutionally prohibited) because he connected so perfectly and profoundly with their conservative temperament. He offered cautious, solid, responsible leadership, and demonstrated a consistent preference for common sense over bluster or grand flourishes. His background as one of the most capable and successful military leaders in human history gave him the ability to assert command without raising his voice, literally or figuratively. He never attempted to demonize his Democratic opponents or the New Deal legacy they cherished, but chipped away at bloated government spending with dramatic results. Three of his eight budgets brought federal surpluses, not deficits, and four of the rest showed deficits as lest than 1% of Gross Domestic Product. Eisenhowever’s worst budgetary year, due to a horrible recession in 1958 and big Democratic gains in Congress, came in 1959, with a deficit that reached 1.59% of GDP…about one-eighth of our current nightmarish rate of 12.4%.
The great British historian Paul Johnson (“A History of the American People”) writes that “the Eisenhower decade was the most prosperous of modern times in America, and felt to be such” and he goes on to describe the profoundly conservative approach that made it possible. Ike “normally ran balanced budgets. What he was most opposed to was a massive, permanent increase in federal commitments. He put holding down inflation before social security because he held that price stability was ultimately the only reliable form of social security. He loathed the idea of a welfare state. He was in fact deeply conservative. He admitted in 1956: ‘Taft was really more liberal than me in domestic matters.’ His nightmare was a combination of excessive defense spending and a runaway welfare machine – a destructive conjunction that became reality in the late 1960’s.”
In foreign affairs, Eisenhower ended the horribly bloody war in Korea and kept U.S. troops out of harm’s way through the most dangerous years of the Cold War. As Johnson writes: “Militant Marxism-Leninism, which had expanded rapidly in the 1940’s in both Europe and Asia, found its impetuous march slowed to a crawl or even halted entirely. These were tremendous achievements.”
Even historians who once dismissed Ike as a “do nothing” president now look back on his leadership with admiration, if not outright awe. Polls of leading historians now regularly place him among the presidential top ten, earning the designation of “great” or at least “near great.” Paul Johnson suggests that together with Churchill, Eisenhower stands as the greatest statesman of any nationality in the mid twentieth century.
For Republicans, the rediscovery of the Eisenhower model counts as imperative and urgent. Most significantly, the thirty-fourth president counts as the precise opposite of Barack Obama in just about everything. In contrast to wildly irresponsible deficit spending, Ike offered tight-fisted fiscal accountability. In place of ambitious and lavishly expensive new programs, Eisenhower actually managed to shrink federal spending as a percentage of the GDP. While Obama pursues a foreign policy that mixes equal parts of appeasement, apology and indecision, Ike offered steady leadership, quiet strength, pin-point application of U.S. power and a reduction of worldwide tension that allowed civilization to rebuild from the unparalleled devastation of World War II. The Obama-crats seem to disregard and distrust the nation’s Christian heritage, but the Eisenhower years inserted the words “under God” into the pledge of allegiance, made “In God We Trust” the official national motto, and witnessed a nationwide and notable religious revival. Most important of all, President Obama offers flashy style with no substance, while President Eisenhower represented the maximum of policy substance with only shambling and understated style. Ike was easy to underestimate; Barak is constantly overrated.
In view of the challenges ahead for the country and the GOP, Republicans should take inspiration and guidance from Eisenhower’s example. The American electorate will respond approvingly in 2012, as it did sixty years before. The people, with their conservative temperament, rightly fear attempts to impose purist, doctrinaire solutions on their own fragile, painstakingly assembled, practically constructed businesses and families. They therefore instinctively prefer modest, pragmatic leadership and will almost always avoid those public personalities who look ruthless, uncompromising and, potentially, irresponsible in their commitment to ideology – whether that system of ideas tilts left or right.
It’s much too early to select one presidential contender who can most effectively advance in the Republican cause in 2012, but any thoughtful conservative who’s asked to express a preference at this point would do well to recall one of the most successful campaign slogans in U.S. history: “I LIKE IKE.”