Magazine | December 22, 2014, Issue


Daft? Partly

In the December 8 issue, Henry Olsen (“A Victory to Last”) attributes the Republicans’ losses in the 1948 election to their passage of the Taft-Hartley Act the previous year. This conclusion is questionable, and even if it’s true, it would not support the lesson Olsen wants to draw.

The most surprising thing about the 1948 results was the Republicans’ poor showing in farm states, their traditional stronghold. Anti-union legislation was not likely a major cause of this; a much bigger factor was the Republicans’ failure to pass an emergency grain-storage bill, thus forcing farmers to sell their crops at distress prices or let them rot. Thomas Dewey’s lackluster, prevent-defense campaign didn’t help either. If it makes sense to draw lessons on campaign strategy from 68 years in the past (which would be like the 1948 contenders looking back to the Garfield-Hancock race of 1880), the most relevant advice would be to build lots of storage bins and avoid nominating a nebbish.

But even if it’s true that Taft-Hartley lost the 1948 race for the Republicans, that doesn’t make it a mistake. They won the White House back in 1952 and held it for two terms, so the setback was only temporary; but the gain, for the GOP and the nation, of restraining union power was permanent, which is why union bosses still complain about Taft-Hartley. The parallels to immigration are obvious.

Roger Sanders

Long Beach, Calif.

Henry Olsen responds:The Taft-Hartley Act was and remains a great piece of legislation. It was not, however, the best political move for a party with its first taste of power in nearly 20 years. The House Republican losses in urban or union districts they had just gained two years earlier demonstrate this.

The farm-state issue Mr. Sanders describes is not inconsistent with my argument. First, for House Republicans the failure to pass the grain-storage bill seems not to have been decisive. Iowa, for example, sent all of its eight GOP House members back to Washington even while Dewey was losing a state he carried four years earlier. Wisconsin also switched from Dewey to Truman, but the Badger State reelected its rural-based Republican representatives, throwing out only the two from Milwaukee.

Second, the failure to pass the bill touches upon the same compassion issue that hurts conservatives even today. If Mr. Sanders’s analysis is right, people afflicted by problems outside of their control now expect politicians to help give them a hand up. Refusal to do that in the name of liberty, federalism, or civil society meets with voter rejection. That is a serious problem: If voters think only one party will give them a hand up in life, that is the one they will support.

1946–48 remains a period with a lesson for conservatives today because it is part of a 70-year pattern. That pattern is one of a failure to craft a conservative message that responds to voter desire for a hand up without becoming “me too” echoes of the liberals. Establishment “me too” candidates don’t win; conservative “just say no” candidates don’t either. Conservatives will continue to play political defense until we learn how to get out of this electoral version of Groundhog Day.

Henry Olsen — Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an editor at, and the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.

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