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.