The Magazine

Choosing Sides

Ideological divisions in the GOP are not exactly news.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
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The first master’s thesis defense committee on which I served, more years ago than I care to count, evaluated an effort titled “Liberal Deviations of Robert A. Taft, 1945-1953.” As a young assistant professor still intoxicated by a heady academic liberal consensus, I was prone to dismiss the author’s assertion that Senator Taft was something more than an iron-hearted reactionary. His backing of limited federal aid to education and subsidies for low- and middle-income housing struck me as Potemkin villages designed for political impact and little more. Still, the thesis made a valid point.

Photo of Robert Taft and Thomas Dewey

Robert A. Taft, left, Thomas E. Dewey, right

In the popular mind at the time, and in the shorthand that enables our historical memory, Taft, when remembered at all, is labeled “Mr. Conservative” or “Mr. Republican.” The labels certainly capture his heart but not his political calculation. In the conventional conservative narrative of post-World War II politics, Taft’s nemesis was Thomas E. Dewey, the smooth, mustachioed governor of New York, a pallid liberal who at times described himself as a “New Deal Republican.” Michael Bowen’s flawed but suggestive effort to get at the origins of the conservative revival that began with the grassroots coalition that formed around Barry Goldwater at the end of the 1950s dents both these caricatures.

Dewey, who began his career as a rackets-busting district attorney, had broken the New Deal grip on New York state by winning election as governor in 1942. He would serve three four-year terms in the office, running a moderate and efficient administration that avoided scandals, maintained essential state services, and displayed solicitude for the numerous minorities embedded in the state’s polyglot electorate.

As governor of the nation’s most important urban state, he clearly felt that he had to come to terms with New Deal liberalism. Essentially an accommodationist in a left-leaning political environment, Dewey promised more of the same with greater efficiency. This attitude dominated his run for president against Harry Truman in 1948. Handsome in the fashion of an aging matinee idol, he was all New York right down to his late-in-life liaison with the glamorous actress and television personality Kitty Carlisle.

Taft, on the other hand, seemed the genuine article. Yale and Harvard Law School education notwithstanding, he looked and acted the epitome of a Midwestern provincial. He was devoted to the conservative heritage of his father, President and, later, Chief Justice William Howard Taft. He had the appearance of a local banker or manufacturer who would be a regular presence at Rotary Club meetings and a force in the local Chamber of Commerce. Asked to give housewives advice on how to cope with rapidly increasing food prices, he replied, “Eat less.” (The full quotation was “Eat less meat and eat less extravagantly.” The news media helpfully reduced the advice to two words.) He was cosponsor of the most important piece of anti-union legislation in American history, the Taft-Hartley Act.

Little wonder, then, that he was widely seen as a conservative champion. Yet his housing and education bills—perhaps motivated by political expediency, perhaps by a pragmatic problem-solving impulse—seemingly displayed a willingness to compromise with New Dealism.

Dewey was Wall Street, Taft Main Street. Dewey was suave, Taft blunt. Style mattered, and magnified differences in degree. Taft, his deviations from conservative orthodoxy notwithstanding, won the hearts of what Bowen calls the GOP Old Guard. Dewey got the more qualified allegiance of Republicans who thought him electable. After he proved to be a two-time loser, he pulled the hat trick of naming a designated successor of limitless electability, Dwight Eisenhower. The bland moderation of Eisenhower’s presidency, Bowen tells us, gave birth to a vigorous new conservatism that would transform the Republican party.

Alas, this pedestrian narrative tells us very little about that new conservative activism, or for that matter about the Old Guard conservatives who rallied to Taft. It is mostly about a long struggle between Taftites and Deweyites for control of the party machinery. It culminated after Eisenhower’s accession in a years-long political purge of Taft loyalists that Stalin would
have envied.

This is useful academic microhistory, but far from the grand promise of the book’s title, which leads one to expect an account of William F. Buckley Jr., and National Review emerging from the ashes to lead a resurgence of Hayekian and Randian libertarians, collegiate activists, and a right-wing Popular Front of the disenchanted. The author gives us, perhaps, a few seeds of modern conservatism; those interested in the roots will need to repair to the work of, among others, Gregory Schneider on Young Americans for Freedom, John Kelley on libertarianism, Lisa McGirr on right-wing suburban politics, and Lee Edwards on Buckley.

Alonzo L. Hamby, biographer of Harry Truman and the author, most recently, of For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s, teaches history at Ohio University.