TCS Daily

Why Truman Beat Dewey - and Why Bush Beat Kerry

By William J. Stuntz - November 3, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: The following article appeared in TCS on Oct. 26 under the headline "Why Dewey Defeats Truman -- And Bush Beats Kerry?" We reprint the article today, removing the question mark from the article's title. We believe the author Bill Stuntz offers a compelling explanation for what happened in this election.

An incumbent President from the heartland faces a strong, experienced challenger from the Northeast. The challenger is strong in part because the incumbent seems weak -- inarticulate and gaffe-prone. But not too weak: Insiders make jokes about him, but he seems to connect with ordinary voters outside the Boston-New York-Washington, D.C. corridor. (Within that corridor he is plainly unpopular, and the Northeastern media overwhelmingly oppose his reelection.) When he came to office, the incumbent had only modest experience. No one had thought of him as a major player in American government during the decade before he moved to the White House, and what experience he had prepared him for domestic policymaking, not foreign affairs. But foreign policy has dominated his presidency -- especially a shadowy not-quite-war, not-quite-peace with an adversary who has agents scattered across the globe. Within the administration, cabinet officers have openly battled over the country's foreign policy. One cabinet member has already been fired; after his dismissal the ex-cabinet member went public with scathing criticism of the President. The Secretary of Defense has not been fired -- yet -- but is a source of major controversy.

The challenger mocks the incumbent's lack of sophistication and touts his own greater experience and competence. But he seems stiff and boring on the campaign trail; platitudes roll off his tongue. His party is solidly behind him, but he does not have its heart -- his nomination is a marriage of convenience, not love. A minor event on the campaign trail captures one reason why: A small accident leads the challenger to snap at the person who caused it; the challenger's harsh words contribute to the widespread impression that he is not a nice man. Still, his party is passionately committed to ousting the incumbent, and the challenger can count on sweeping the Northeast. For his part, the incumbent seems certain to carry the South, including border states like Kentucky and Oklahoma. The key battleground will be the Midwest. If the election comes down to a single state, there is a good chance it will be Ohio.

George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004? Well, yes. But also Harry Truman and Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. Like Bush, Truman was widely ridiculed -- a common saying at the time held that "to err is Truman" -- and widely believed to be too stupid to be an effective President. Bush fired Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who promptly wrote a book mocking his former boss's incompetence; Truman fired Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace, who immediately called the President a warmonger. Calls for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation are common today. So were calls for the resignation of Defense Secretary James Forrestal in 1948. (The next year, Forrestal resigned under pressure, then killed himself.) Yet Bush and Truman share more than their troubles. Like Bush, Truman seemed to have a knack for reaching middle America. Elites tended to sneer at him, but a sizeable fraction of the population genuinely liked the man. So too with Bush, whose poll numbers today look much better than Truman's in spite of a relentlessly critical press.

It's hard to imagine now, but there are parallels in foreign policy too. Though the war on terror is a very different enterprise than the Cold War, the two quasi-wars have a great deal in common. Both have been politically contentious: the idea that Republicans and Democrats didn't play politics with foreign policy in the late 1940s is ahistorical nonsense. Both required heavy use of intelligence services, meaning that key victories went unnoticed by the press and public -- a built-in disadvantage for incumbents Truman and Bush. Both led to far-flung military commitments that stretched our capabilities. In both cases the public feared domestic subversion, and both times that fear led some to think, wrongly, that the country was losing its civil liberties. In the late 1940s as today, we had a debate about "hard" versus "soft" power, about whether to fight communism with bullets (as we were doing in Greece, later Korea) or with economic assistance (as in the Marshall Plan, passed in 1947 after a heated Congressional debate). Then as now, the right answer was: use both.

The big difference, one might suppose, is that Truman's people knew what they were doing in that dangerous world. These were, after all, "the wise men." But they didn't seem so wise at the time. Americans in the fall of 1948 saw a world that was coming apart, and an Administration that seemed unsure what to do about it. Communism was on the march in China; Chiang Kai-shek would fall the next year, triggering an anguished national debate about how and why Truman and his wise counselors had lost the Cold War's biggest battle. Not so different from the debate we are having about seeming chaos in Iraq. (It isn't as chaotic as it seems, but leave that aside.) In 1948, many feared that once Mao won China, Japan would soon fall into the Communist orbit. The iron curtain had already fallen over Eastern Europe. Western Europe, which America had saved for freedom a few years earlier, was starving. And seething: Communist parties were on the rise in France and Italy. Truman's team seemed in over their heads. Dean Acheson and George Marshall, James Forrestal and George Kennan did not look so different -- and no more in control of events C than Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice and Paul Wolfowitz. All of which is why, fifty-six years ago, most educated people believed that Tom Dewey would surely do better.

But Dewey had weaknesses too -- and the weaknesses would seem familiar to anyone following the 2004 campaign. Like John Kerry, Dewey was a smart man but a dull campaigner. And not so likeable as his opponent. A famous incident in the 1948 campaign captured that last point: At one stop Dewey's campaign train lurched forward suddenly, whereupon the jostled candidate suggested shooting the conductor. Not so different from Kerry's collision with a Secret Service agent on a ski slope a few months back. Kerry snapped: "That son of a bitch ran into me." No one could imagine Bush or Truman reacting that way.

These parallels held up through the presidential debates. Bush was less combative than Truman would have been; Kerry was less abstract (also less consistent) than Dewey. But it was clear to anyone watching that one of these candidates was trying to appeal to sophisticates -- and it wasn't the President. Also that one of these candidates was noticeably colder, less human than the other (think of Kerry's Mary Cheney moment) -- and that too was not the President. The same things would have been true in 1948.

Which leads to one important difference between these two elections: the two parties have switched sides, geographically and culturally. Today it's the Democrats who are strongest among upscale voters in New York and Boston, and the Republicans whose base spreads across the South and West. In 1948, the Republicans rejected a candidate whom the rank and file clearly loved -- Senator Robert Taft -- but whose isolationism seemed likely to lose him the election. In 2004, the Democrats turned Howard Dean aside for similar reasons, in a campaign that was more about "electability" than about issues. Just like Dewey's successful nomination campaign in 1948.

There is one parallel we can't know now, but it seems a fair bet: In 1948, Dewey carried a nearly solid Northeast along with portions of the Midwest. Truman swept the West and South (apart from four states that voted for segregationist Strom Thurmond). That, together with a few Midwest states -- Illinois and Ohio were key -- gave him 303 electoral votes, to Dewey's 189. Today's lineup is different in two respects: The West Coast now votes with the Northeast; the South and West both have a much larger share of the Electoral College than fifty-six years ago. The two changes roughly cancel out. Kerry's Northeast plus the Pacific coast have 190 electoral votes. Bush's South and the rest of the West have 234. Kerry must either penetrate Bush's base -- presumably in Florida -- or nearly sweep the Midwest. If Bush holds "his" regions and adds Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri, he will be home. Just as Truman was carried safely home by the South and the West, plus Ohio, Illinois, and his home state of Missouri.

What lessons should we draw from all these parallels? I think there are three: one about the world, one about the candidates, and one about the electoral map.

Americans tend to assume that the world should be orderly and our place in it secure. Sometimes those things are true. But sometimes they're not. The years after World War II were very disorderly and America's role was actively contested -- and that was bound to be true regardless of who occupied the White House. The same is true today. For all that has gone wrong in Iraq, it is worth remembering that we live in a time of turmoil, not stability. Disequilibrium, not equilibrium. That would be true if Al Gore or John Kerry were President too. Evaluating Presidents in such times is a tricky business. The key to doing it well is to look at the big picture: Are we gaining ground? Are our adversaries getting the things they want? In 1948, what Stalin wanted most was to communize Western Europe. He didn't do it. So too, Osama Bin Laden and his friends have pulled off no September 11-like attacks on American soil, he has lost allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his former allies in Pakistan are turning on him. There have been defeats, large ones: Think of Spain, and the Madrid attacks that overturned a friendly government. But the larger trends are positive.

The lesson about the candidates has to do with personality. Americans like to like their Presidents. Tom Dewey was very good at conveying competence, even mastery. (Dewey was America's first celebrity prosecutor, and in many ways he resembles a later New York prosecutor-turned-politician: Rudolph Giuliani, though September 11 seems to have humanized Giuliani.) He was also an arrogant know-it-all. The second impression ultimately mattered more than the first. John Kerry is not as talented as Dewey was; he does not convey the same level of mastery. All the more reason his supporters should worry about the arrogance he exudes. And Bush's critics should remember another lesson of 1948: Americans like Presidents who seem to know right from wrong, act decisively, and don't put on airs.

Which brings us to the lesson about the electoral map. The past century has seen four elections that pitted the South and West against the Northeast (along with, today, the West Coast): 1916, 1948, 1968, and 2000. Each time, the election was close. And each time, the candidate of the South and West won. Democrat Woodrow Wilson beat Republican Charles Evans Hughes in a majority-Republican country. Truman beat Dewey in the most famous upset in our history. Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey -- by 1968, the South and West were Republican territory -- in a majority-Democratic America. And, as we all know, George W. Bush held Florida and took the White House, overcoming a sitting Vice President in a Democratic Administration that had produced peace, prosperity, and budget surpluses. Red America tends win these battles with Blue America. Even against long odds.

The odds are not as long this year, partly because one of the two candidates carries a major electoral handicap. For most of American history, the region that was most politically distinctive -- whose voting behavior differed most from the rest of the country -- was the South. Not coincidentally, for most of our history Southern politicians found it impossible to win the White House: years of practice at appealing to Southern whites (Southern blacks couldn't vote) did not prepare them well for seeking the votes of Ohioans and Arizonans. Today, the most politically distinctive region is the Northeast, as this statistic shows: the past four elections, the Democrats have carried Kerry's home state by an average margin of nearly 22 points. For Republicans and Texas, the average margin is less than half that. John Kerry has spent a political lifetime learning how to please the voters of Massachusetts. That is not good training for appealing to Pennsylvanians and Floridians.

Kerry could win anyway. After all, as Lloyd Bentsen might say, Bush is no Harry Truman. But then, Harry Truman didn't look like Harry Truman in 1948. And Kerry does a pretty good impression of Tom Dewey.

William J. Stuntz is a Professor at Harvard Law School.


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