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The Way the GOP Was

by Vincent J. Cannato

The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party, by Michael Bowen (North Carolina, 288 pp., $45)

Those following the current Republican presidential primary campaign would find GOP presidential politics of the 1940s and 1950s odd, to say the least. As Michael Bowen shows in this new book, the GOP of that era was divided into two factions, one led by New York governor Thomas E. Dewey and the other by Ohio senator Robert A. Taft. Party insiders fought their battles behind the scenes. Both factions could lay claim to being part of the Republican establishment. Ideology was often a secondary concern. Neither National Review, talk radio, nor the conservative blogosphere was on the scene.

It was a far cry from today’s GOP race, which features a broad range of candidates, including a House backbencher, former and present governors, a libertarian with a cult-like following, and a businessman who has never held political office. The Tea Party tries to hold candidates to conservative principles, as its supporters on talk radio condemn Republicans they deem insufficiently conservative as RINOs — “Republicans in Name Only.”

If members of the Tea Party had been around politics in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they would have found it a lonely place. Definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” were less clear-cut, while party elites ran the show from start to finish. The tea partiers would have found that it was all RINOs all the way down back then.

But that would be looking backwards at history through the lens of present conditions. Bowen seeks to avoid that and, like many academic historians, hopes to upend conventional wisdom. In this case, he takes issue with the idea that the birth of modern political conservatism came during the 1960s with the rise of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Instead, he views the battles between Dewey and Taft as foreshadowing the future liberal/conservative debate that would dominate not just Republican politics, but national politics as well.

Bowen marshals his case with an impressive amount of research into the minutiae of intramural party politics. This is political history — straight, no chaser. He dives into arcane organizational battles as party elites competed over patronage and the presidential-nominating process. In this, Bowen understands what so many historians don’t — that politics is often about power and organization, with ideas coming a distant third.

One can certainly see the faint traces of modern GOP politics in the fights between Dewey and Taft. Phyllis Schlafly dubbed Dewey and his supporters “the Kingmakers.” They were the eastern, liberal Republican establishment. While they sometimes spoke of their opposition to parts of the New Deal, they were more interested in winning elections and thought the pathway to success meant sounding more like Democrats, especially in winning over the labor vote. They may have occasionally criticized the New Deal, but at the end of the day they made their peace with the vast changes FDR had wrought in the relationship between citizens and the federal government.

The Taftites were more vocally opposed to the New Deal and what they saw as the country’s descent into socialism. But the Taftites were elites as well, just of a different kind: pro-business types from the Midwest. (Taft himself had impressive elite credentials: He had been Skull and Bones at Yale.) Yet in the way they framed their positions in intraparty squabbles, Taft’s Old Guard played the “conservatives” to Dewey’s Eastern Establishment “liberals.”

In some ways, Taft showed that he was willing to go further than Dewey. He co-authored one of the most important pieces of post-war legislation: the Taft-Hartley Act, which curbed some of the gains that organized labor had achieved during the New Deal and allowed states to adopt “right to work” laws. Yet, though Taft was willing to challenge organized labor, he was hardly a small-government conservative. He supported federal aid to education and was a leading backer of the 1949 Housing Act, which funded urban renewal and public-housing projects across the nation.

The son of Pres. William Howard Taft, Robert A. Taft was one of the most influential Republicans of the 20th century, widely hailed as the embodiment of Republicanism throughout his career. Yet his legacy remains hidden under the shadows of Goldwater and Reagan. Part of the reason for his relative obscurity is his early and untimely death from cancer in 1953. He was only 63 and there is no way to tell how he would have guided the party through the 1950s and into the 1960s.

Taft’s death not only ended his own career, but badly damaged the position of his supporters within the GOP. Dewey’s Eastern Establishment, Bowen notes, were just much better at backroom politics than the midwesterners.

Then there was Taft’s longstanding isolationism, which made him skeptical of NATO and the Korean War. These foreign-policy positions put him at odds with much of modern conservative foreign-policy thinking. Finally, there is the fact that the Taft descendants who remained involved in politics, including his son who followed him in the Senate and his grandson who was governor of Ohio, have been more closely identified with the moderate wing of the GOP.

Others who carried on in the Taft tradition were staid, midwestern moderate conservatives such as Gerald Ford and former House minority leader Bob Michel: not flaming liberals, but men unlikely to challenge liberal orthodoxy too strenuously. Of course, Taft fares better than Dewey, who is now remembered mostly for losing the 1948 presidential election to Harry Truman, a race that he had all but wrapped up.

Bowen wants to show that the modern conservative/liberal divide can be traced back to the Dewey–Taft fight, but he can’t seem to decide whether those battles were simply factionalism for factionalism’s sake, or a real ideological dispute. Ultimately, he hedges and admits that although “neither the Taftites nor the Deweyites governed ideologically, voters increasingly expected them to.”

Of course, ideological factionalism was nothing new to the GOP, as Taft’s father surely understood. In the first two decades of the 20th century, “Old Guard” Republicans continually battled “Progressive” Republicans over the direction of the party. It was a fight over both party control and public policy.

In the end, the power struggle between Dewey and Taft for control of the Republican party may not have shaped the modern conservative GOP quite as much as Bowen claims. Yet similarities to future party conflicts are certainly present. Taft’s Old Guard were often portrayed as reactionary retrogrades, while Dewey’s “modern Republicans” were characterized as reasonable, respectable, and, above all, electable. One saw the same script play out in the 2008 Republican Senate primary races in Delaware, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Kentucky, and Florida.

Modern Republican politics has indeed often boiled down to a battle for control between party elites and advocates of a kind of middle-class populism. Elites are accused of trimming their ideological sails out of self-interest, while populists are accused of an extremism that will lead to electoral defeat. You can see this in Goldwater vs. Rockefeller; Reagan vs. Ford (in 1976) and Bush (in 1980); and today’s Tea Party against the Washington GOP establishment.

One important historical lesson hidden within Bowen’s book is the sometimes-yawning chasm between conservative rhetoric and the actual record of Republican governance. As Bowen writes, it was “one thing to argue for limiting the federal government but quite another to actually do it.” Neither Taft (with the prominent exception of Taft-Hartley) nor Dewey was prepared to challenge New Deal liberalism in any meaningful way. (In their partial defense, such a challenge was simply not politically viable at that time.)

At some point, actions have to align with political rhetoric. In retrospect, most of the GOP position papers and political platforms of the 1940s and 1950s were relatively meaningless. The Dewey–Taft fights may have conditioned voters to think in terms of “conservative” and “liberal,” but they provided very little substance to those terms.

Today, the Republican party faces a similar problem. For years, conservatives have called for smaller, limited government, yet with few exceptions, federal spending and government regulations have continued to grow. The current economic crisis and the rise of the Tea Party have called attention to the need for fiscal discipline, entitlement reform, and regulatory reform. If today’s Republicans can’t find a way to tackle these problems in a manner consistent with their ideological beliefs, while maintaining an air of prudence that appeals to a broad base of the electorate, they may end up like Taft and Dewey: relics of a bygone age.

– Mr. Cannato teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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