Saturday, July 7, 2012

Romney's Tom Dewey Moment

Jeffrey Lord
Obamacare tax confusion a warning sign: the peril of playing it safe.

Thomas E. Dewey.

The president who might have been.

The Romney campaign's stumble over Obamacare (it's a penalty…no…wait…it's a tax! Yes! Yes! We're sure now…it's a tax!) was both unnecessary and avoidable.

If the Romney campaign isn't careful (as our friends at the Wall Street Journal noted here), the morning after the 2012 election they may well find themselves linked forever to the famously hapless 1948 campaign of Tom Dewey. The campaign everyone expected to be a hands-down winner -- which turned into the greatest upset in American political history at the hands of underdog President Harry Truman.

As the famous George Santayana quote reminds: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

So in light of the Romney stumble, perhaps the most pertinent question about the past that was the shocking Dewey loss is: why? Why exactly did Governor Thomas E. Dewey, the man every political analyst in the country believed was a certifiable winner over Truman -- lose?

Let's do the Santayana thing here and remember the past of the Dewey campaign.

To set the stage, by 1948 Democrats had held the White House for 16 years. First with the elections of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936 -- then FDR's record shattering third and fourth elections in 1940 and 1944. Roosevelt died months after taking office in 1945, leaving his new and unknown vice president, former Missouri Senator Truman, suddenly in the Oval Office.

Under ordinary circumstances this would have been no small thing. But April 12th of 1945 -- the day FDR died -- was no small ordinary moment. World War II raged. The Allies were finally moving swiftly through Europe but Adolf Hitler was still very much alive. In the Pacific, the war against Japan was furiously ongoing, with no end in sight.

Truman, a totally unknown quantity outside of Missouri and Washington, D.C., stepped in and did a magnificent job as Commander-in-Chief. By April 30 Hitler was dead, by May the Germans had surrendered. In August, two atomic bombs shocked the Japanese into surrendering the following month. Politically speaking, Truman was riding high.

But with the war over, the grittier problems of the economy, returning GIs, and the dawn of the Cold War began to surface. Rapidly, Truman's approval ratings began to drop -- then to tank. The popular phrase of the day was "To err is Truman." By July of 1948, having easily turned back stiff primary challenges, Governor Dewey, who had lost to FDR in 1944 (unsurprisingly -- no one could have upended Roosevelt in the middle of the war) was acclaimed as the GOP nominee. Picking popular liberal GOP California Governor Earl Warren as his running mate, the Dewey campaign began.

The theme? Unity. As Dewey biographer Richard Norton Smith quotes a Dewey speechwriter, unity would be "the clothesline on which speeches would be hung."

Why the bland concept of unity? Well, went the reasoning, the economy was in turmoil, Berlin had been blockaded, China was in the middle of civil war, the Middle East had just exploded in the first Arab-Israeli War, the State of Israel being only weeks old. Fresh from World War II, the concern was that World War III was teetering on the brink.

So what decision did Dewey make? What was to be the day-to-day of the Dewey campaign?

Play it safe.

No comments: