Is Mitt Romney Going to Go the Way of Thomas Dewey in '48?





7-2-12

Robert Brent Toplin is a retired professor of history who taught at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He has published several books on history, politics, and film, and he operates a website, www.politicsoftheusa.com. His film-related books include "Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood," "History By Hollywood," and "Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy."

Mitt Romney’s reluctance to take stands on controversial issues was particularly notable in a recent interview with Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation. On several occasions the Schieffer asked whether Romney intended to overturn Barack Obama’s new immigration policy, which allows some young illegal immigrants to stay in the United States. Each time Romney refused to answer Schieffer’s question.

Romney's evasiveness echoes that of the Republican nominee in 1948, Thomas E. Dewey. Dewey avoided taking stands in 1948 because he thought firm commitments were unnecessary. Public disapproval of Democratic president Harry S. Truman seemed likely to propel Dewey to the White House. Mitt Romney is noncommittal for precisely the same reason. Romney is aware that many Americans blame President Obama for their economic difficulties. Hoping to stoke that discontent, Romney’s speeches and television ads claim the president’s policies have failed. Yet Romney does not offer many details about how he plans to fix the economy.

In 1948 Thomas E. Dewey thought he had a good opportunity to run a well-managed but cautious campaign. Dewey had seen evidence of the public’s discontent in the 1946 congressional races, which produced big gains for the GOP. In the '46 elections, Republican candidates took advantage of the country’s post-war economic woes. The GOP’s successful campaign slogan was “Had enough?" Does this sound familar?

Of course, the political situation in 2012 is in many ways strikingly different. Back in 1948 liberalism carried much more authority with the American public than it does today. Many Americans were appreciative of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, because they believed Roosevelt’s policies helped to lift them out of the Great Depression. FDR died in 1945, but his legacy remained strong. Thomas E. Dewey did not challenge the New Deal sharply in his 1948 presidential campaign, nor was he inclined to reject most of Roosevelt’s programs. Ineed, the former New York governor was the very essence of a moderate Northeastern Republican.

Mitt Romney is operating in a much more partisan environment. As the presumptive leader of an ideologically committed Republican Party, Romney must strike a more conservative pose than Dewey presented in 1948. During the 2012 primaries, Mitt Romney tried to overcome the Right’s suspicion that he was a moderate by declaring himself “severely conservative.”

Romney frequently criticizes Barack Obama, but in a vague way. Romney rejects “Obamacare,” but he does not offer many details about how he intends to replace it with adequate and affordable health care. On foreign policy, Romney promises to stand tough when dealing with Russia and China, but he demonstrates few real differences with Obama’s policies on specific issues. On climate change, Mitt Romney has made so many conflicting statements that it is difficult to pin him down. Sometimes he acknowledges that the Earth is getting hotter but then backs away by saying that he cannot prove that is the case. Are humans causing climate change? “It could be a little,” he answers. “It could be a lot.”

In 1948 voters wanted to hear about Dewey’s plans to boost the economy. The Republican candidate responded with platitudes. “We propose to install in Washington an administration which has faith in the American people, a warm understanding of their needs and the competence to meet them,” he told a crowd in Des Moines. On another occasion he promised confidently that “America’s future is still ahead of us.”

Mitt Romney tries to take aggressive positions on the most important issue of interest to voters this year: jobs. Yet his speeches are typically short on particulars. “My job is to bring jobs back to America,” he told audiences recently. Romney assured supporters in New Hampshire, “I understand what it takes to get jobs to America.” He delivered a related message to college students: “What I can promise you is this -- when you get out of college, if I’m president you’ll have a job.”

Mitt Romney makes abundant promises to fight unemployment, though he tends to identify remedies that have already been tried. He speaks about reducing regulations and taxes to lift the economy and employment, even though regulations have been cut substantially over the past thirty years and actual taxes affecting wealthy individuals and corporations have dropped sharply.

Romney’s cautious strategy could pay off. He might be able to promote himself effectively as the anti-Obama candidate and discover that public discontent with high unemployment, depressed real estate values, and the expanding national debt will draw plenty of voters to his side. Backed with piles of cash from individuals and political action committees, Romney should to be in a good position to deliver his message.

But voters may ask: what is that message?

Romney could find himself trapped in a communications vacuum, much like Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. Dewey remained vague on the issues through much of the campaign, allowing Harry S. Truman to define the stakes and pull off a surprise victory in November. Truman proposed lots of specific programs during the campaign. He lambasted Dewey and the Republican Congress for impeding much-needed reforms.

Currently the Democrats are employing a similar strategy. President Obama has been reminding voters that Romney and the Republicans in Congress are blocking numerous measures designed to help the American people during hard times. Seeming to imitate Harry S. Truman, Obama is challenging Republicans on specifics.

Obama has taken strong positions on a variety of issues. He blames the GOP for frustrating efforts to keep interest payments low on student loans, reduce the outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries, and prevent layoffs of teachers, firemen and policemen. Obama berates the Republicans for opposing the regulation of Wall Street. He defends gay marriage and calls for the creation of work opportunities for young illegal immigrants. Obama challenges Republicans to assist homeowners who need to refinance their mortgages, and he urges funding to improve airport, highway and rail transportation. Additionally Obama dares Republicans to endorse the “Buffett Rule,” which would apply a minimum tax rate of 30 percent on individuals making over a million dollars a year.

The presidential campaign still has months to take shape. Mitt Romney may be able to capitalize on public worries about the economy and sail to victory without taking lots of controversial stands. By presenting himself as an alternative to Barack Obama, he can draw many voters into the Republican camp. But Romney’s hesitancy about identifying clear positions could undermine voter confidence in his potential for leadership. Thomas E. Dewey encountered that problem in 1948 when he chose to skirt the issues.


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