The GOP Should Pray for a Right Wing Third Party
There may be lessons to be drawn from the presidential election of 1948, but none that will be especially instructive for President Obama. It is, rather, the Republicans who can learn something from Harry Truman’s victory that year. Everyone but Harry Truman himself thought he would lose the election, and it is probably true that the election was lost by New York Governor Thomas Dewey rather than won by Truman. By running such a cautious campaign, Dewey allowed Truman to sieze and hold the initiative. Truman not only ran against the conservative “Do Nothing Congress,” he ran against “the reds and the pinks” who were, in fact, members of his own administration. According to local historian David Pietrusza, the author of the newly published “1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America,” Dewey refrained from attacking domestic Communists because he had been criticized so sharply for doing so in 1944, when he was also the Republican nominee.
Defending his reluctance to attack the left, Dewey said, “we have a lot of Communists in New York” – one of the best lines of the campaign. And he was right. New York is the only city to have sent a Communist, Vito Marcantonio, to Congress, and only New York delivered enough votes to the Progressive Party’s Henry Wallace to deprive Truman of a plurality and allow Dewey to carry the state, which he had lost in 1944. At the start of the campaign, Wallace was expected to receive ten million votes. Instead, he drew only one million. Some of those millions drifted back to the Democratic party after it became increasingly clear that Wallace couldn’t win, and that Truman, whatever his flaws, was preferable to Dewey. Others may have become disenchanted with Wallace, whose campaign, it became clear over time, was dominated by Communists. Those who stuck with Wallace were committed leftists, a fact which may have been extremely helpful to Truman’s chances. “The Democrats who deserted their party strengthened it,” writes Pietrusza, perhaps because moderates, conservative Democrats and even Republicans could now feel comfortable voting for a party that was no longer identified with the far left (or, for that matter, with the far right, which had also bolted the party to support the segregationist Dixiecrats.)
Here, we are inclined to think, is a lesson for the Republican party. Rather than attempting to accommodate the Tea Party, the Evangelicals and the Libertarians, the GOP should distance itself from them; it should encourage them to create their own minor parties. If Mitt Romney, who many on the right still perceive as a moderate, loses to Obama, they may desert the party on their own accord for more ideologically pure alternatives. That is something to be wished for. Republican candidates would no longer be pulled rightward in the primaries, and the ultimate nominee might be someone whom moderates, independents and Democrats would conceivably support. After years of polarization, we might once again have a vital center. A center that can hold. In every end is a beginning.