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Would He Rather Fight Than Switch?

If President Obama faces a Republican House, he will have two models to choose between: Harry Truman and Bill Clinton.

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By JAY COST
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All signs are that the Republican party will retake the House of Representatives on November 2. If that happens, the president will find himself at a fork in the road, the first of his presidency. How he responds to a new Republican majority will set the tone for the rest of his term and could determine whether he will win reelection in 2012.

Would He Rather Fight Than Switch?

Harry Truman

Photo Credit: AP, Henry Griffin

History offers guidance on this point. Since World War II, two Democratic presidents—Harry Truman and Bill Clinton—have found themselves in similar situations. Their first midterms swung control of Congress decisively to the Grand Old Party. Understanding how each reacted to the new Republican majority, and why he succeeded in winning reelection, may suggest President Obama’s best approach to a new Republican majority.

Vice President Truman became president upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in the spring of 1945. Initially embraced by the American people, the new president quickly lost popular support, as he mismanaged the various crises arising from the transition to peacetime. Inflation, strikes, and the emerging Soviet threat pulled his job approval ratings far into negative territory by the time of the 1946 midterm elections. “Sherman was wrong,” Truman joked to the Gridiron Club, “I’m telling you, I find peace is hell.”

The GOP ran on a simple slogan in the midterm cycle, “Had enough?” The country answered resoundingly in the affirmative. The Republicans picked up 55 seats in the House, winning the majority for the first time since the Great Depression. The labor unions, which did not much care for Truman’s vacillating positions on their issues, sat on their hands in November, and it showed. The Republicans won congressional victories in big cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago, and they swept the field in Philadelphia. When the dust settled, Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas publicly commented that Truman should nominate a Republican as secretary of state, then resign so the public mandate could be fully implemented.

But Truman went on the offensive. In the fall of 1947, one of his closest advisers, Clark Clifford, forwarded to him a memo written by a former FDR political aide, James Rowe. In the memo, Rowe argued for a two-pronged strategy that he believed could hold FDR’s coalition together and secure Truman election in his own right in 1948. 

On the international front, Rowe urged Truman to take a hard stand against the Soviet menace, shunning the appeasers in his own party, symbolically led by former vice president Henry Wallace, who Rowe said “should be put under attack whenever the moment is psychologically correct.” On the domestic front, Rowe urged Truman to reject the idea that 1946 represented a lasting shift to the right; instead, he asserted, Truman should embrace a liberal agenda to manage the postwar economy. This, Rowe believed, would reunite the old FDR coalition—the labor and Catholic vote in the big cities, the Solid South, and the progressive West. 

Truman was a longtime New Dealer, a loyal Democrat, and a shrewd political operative, so it’s an open question whether Rowe influenced or simply reinforced his thinking. Regardless, he pursued both prongs. His tough anti-Communist stance enabled him to isolate Wallace and forge a bipartisan foreign policy coalition with congressional Republicans, most notably Senator Arthur Vandenburg of Michigan. The GOP had run as tough anti-Communists in 1946, but two years later they would not be able to tag Truman as soft on the Soviet Union. On the domestic side, Truman was all fight. He proposed to the Republican Congress a vigorously liberal economic program even though he knew they would never go for it. He also vetoed the Taft-Hartley labor relations bill as well as tax cuts. 

The conventional wisdom was against Truman and Rowe. Most observers, including most Democrats, believed that 1946 was a prelude to a smashing Republican victory in 1948. It must have come as a shock to the morose delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia when Truman, accepting his party’s nomination, opened on a feisty note: “I will win this election and make these Republicans like it—don’t you forget that!” The speech launched what was easily the most combative reelection campaign since Andrew Jackson’s in 1832. For months Truman railed against the “do nothing 80th Congress.” As a purely political stunt, he called Congress into special session in the summer of 1948. In the fall, he barnstormed the country, telling laborers, farmers, westerners—anybody who would listen—the same story: Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal had saved America, but the people had forgotten everything the Democrats had done for them and had gotten the Republican Congress as a reward for their ingratitude.

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