The Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” of the 2012 election, the work of the Growth and Opportunity Project, has received a great deal of criticism from conservatives since its release on Monday. Their general take seems to be that, as Brent Bozell put it, establishment Republicans are trying to “out-Democrat” the Democrats.
While it remains to be seen how much buy-in the report will receive from the Right, it is worth noting that the proposed solutions parallel those offered by establishment Republicans immediately after World War II. Since the GOP had been in power when the economy collapsed in 1929, many voters equated it with the poverty and suffering of the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt did nothing to disabuse the public of this notion while he built the Democratic party into a liberal juggernaut.
With Roosevelt’s death and the end of hostilities in 1945, politics started to normalize, and the Republicans developed a new plan for victory. That year, RNC chairman Herbert Brownell and the 1944 presidential nominee, Thomas Dewey, hired pollster Claude Robinson to assess the party’s image with an eye to the 1948 election.
Robinson’s findings, circulated among top Republican officials in a confidential document, could easily be mistaken for the report of the Growth and Opportunity Project. Though the specific circumstances and recommendations differ, Robinson’s prescription was to broaden the party by becoming more inclusive and welcoming. As he put it, “the party needs mass appeal.”
Youth has been one of the key groups RNC chairman Reince Priebus has targeted for the 2016 election. The RNC report states: “Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents.” Brownell’s GOP had the same problem. The 1945 report claimed: “The Republicans have been the minority party for twelve years. They have lost appeal to youth. They must find fresh, vigorous, righteous appeals to recruit youth, or their long-term outlook is bearish.”
The middle class, facing an uncertain postwar economy, was another group Robinson highlighted, saying: “[One group] the Republicans can appeal to is the great middle class — the people who own a home, a life insurance policy, a savings account — the people who have pride in self-sufficiency, who believe that America is a land of opportunity where a man can get ahead if he tried.” Though the rhetoric is changed to match the changed circumstances, this sounds similar to a line from the first section of the RNC report. It claims: “. . . if we are going to grow as a Party, our policies and actions must take into account that the middle class has struggled mightily and that far too many of our citizens live in poverty.”
Finally, Robinson argued that the Republican party had to appeal beyond its pro-business constituencies. Noting that “the Republican party is identified in the public mind with the wealthy,” he encouraged it to woo labor unions and minority groups. The Growth and Opportunity Project’s report calls for Republicans to reach out to various racial and ethnic minorities while adopting key policy goals to hasten their acceptance of the GOP.
While the political climates of 1945 and 2013 are radically different in many ways, the fight between conservatives and moderates is remarkably similar. Robinson’s report provided the guiding philosophy of Dewey’s organization, the original “eastern establishment.” Conservative Republicans, who had not yet coined the term “RINO,” referred to Dewey’s faction as “me-too” Republicans for their tendency to parrot the Democrats’ policies. The conservatives rallied around Ohio senator Robert Taft, an outspoken anti–New Dealer, and resisted Dewey’s brand of moderate Republicanism.
The intramural conflict made the immediate postwar period a time of frustration for Republicans on both sides, as each was dismissive of the other’s concerns, and neither could fully prevail. The Taft organization promoted conservative issues and had support among grassroots Republicans. It led the RNC during the 1946 midterms and delivered the first Republican majorities in both houses since 1932. This made a plausible case that opposition to the New Deal paid dividends at the polls, and the Taft faction made few efforts to broaden the base as Robinson called for.
The moderate faction used its support among party insiders and convention delegates to nominate Dewey for the second time in 1948. He did his level best to distance himself from conservative measures like the Taft-Hartley Act. He lost badly for several reasons, not the least of which was that he ignored the concerns of loyal Republicans who were unenthusiastic about his candidacy.
The Republican party is in much better shape today than it was in 1945, especially since, as the Growth and Opportunity Project boasts proudly, it controls the House of Representatives and holds 30 governorships. However, the dismissive tones being used by each side of the establishment/conservative divide with regard to the other do not bode well. If the disconnects between the grassroots and the leadership are not mended, they could hurt the party’s effectiveness going forward.
— Michael Bowen is the author of The Roots of Modern Conservatism.