The Magazine


Feb 12, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 21 • By ALAN EHRENHALT
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Simple logic made a Republican presidential victory look almost inescapable. The incumbent Democrat, elected with a minority of the vote, had never come close to pleasing most of the electorate. His poll numbers were terrible. His domestic program, built around a cumbersome health-care scheme, had gone nowhere. The newspapers were filled with the tedious details of one petty administration scandal after another. The country seemed tired of the president, tired of the Democrats, tired of government.

It looked like an election that no presentable Republican nominee could possibly lose. And yet, as the campaign began, Republicans all over the country seemed not only fearful that it would slip away, but somehow prepared to lose it. The leading Republican contender for president was the party's leader in the Senate, an aging veteran of undeniable intelligence and legislative skill. For the past decade he had dominated the Republican side of the aisle, alternating between caustic partisan warfare and sustained efforts at compromise.

In private conversation, the senator nearly always demonstrated an appealing modesty and self-deprecating charm. In public, however, his manner seemed brittle, his sarcasm unsettling, his partisanship mean-spirited, his clipped midwestern accent grating to listen to. Three times he had been a candidate for national office, and each time he had demonstrated his singular lack of popular appeal. If it was diffcult to imagine the Republican party losing at a time like this, it was easy enough to imagine this particular candidate being rejected.

That was why, a few months earlier, so many Republicans had been so infatuated with another possibility -- a general and recent war hero with no political experience who had never even established clearly which party he belonged to. This general was everything the Senate leader was not -- avuncular, soft-spoken, reassuring. He conveyed easy authority with very few words and scarcely a breath of effort. Nobody was sure just what he thought about most of the issues of the day, but one thing seemed all but certain: If he were the Republican nominee, the Democrats would be turned out of office.

By now you probably have figured this one out, in case you did not get it immediately. This is the script for 1952, not 1996, and the flawed front- runner was not Robert Dole but Robert Taft. The president was Harry Truman. You know who the general was. You also know what the ending was. Dwight Eisenhower was no Colin Powell.

To keep the analogy going, you have to ignore some inconvenient distinctions between that year and the present one. The Republicans didn't control Congress in 1952, and the Democratic president didn't run for reelection (Truman chose to retire). So I'm not presenting the comparison between 1952 and 1996 as some sort of uncanny historical coincidence. It isn't that at all. What it does is offer us a way to begin thinking about how presidential politics -- and American political life have changed in the 44 years since Eisenhower and Taft contested the Republican nomination.

The system we currently use is not a very dignified or effective way of picking a president. That point is made countless times every election year, and it is correct. But there is another point to be made, one that we rarely bother to state explicitly. It is that the presidential politics of the 1990s serves up a different sort of human being than the politics of the 1950s -- different in style, different in temperament, different in the most fundamental attitudes toward life.

In the 1990s, far more than in the 1950s, presidential campaigns are crowded with aspirants eager to proclaim their loyalty to conservative principles of one sort or another. They are crusaders for the free market, or for personal responsibility, or devolution, or some image of a better America that existed at one time but does not seem to exist anymore. But when it comes to temperament -- when it comes to virtues like prudence, reticence, respect for order, and gravitas -- then I think it is only fair to say that there are no conservatives in the race.

That was not the case in 1952. Indeed, the presidential election of 1952 offered the country a choice among three people who were conservatives in the innermost compartments of the soul. That this description applies to Taft will surprise no one who remembers him. But Eisenhower, fabled moderate? And Adlai Stevenson, lion of liberalism? Let me explain.