Tom Dewey: Mob-Buster and Highway Builder

March 24th, 2010 at 9:33 pm | 10 Comments |

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This week, we are also reposting a classic series from the FF archives: Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Secret History of the Republican Party.”

Most people remember Thomas Dewey, if at all, as the Republican candidate who lost the seemingly secure 1948 presidential election, the fall guy to a grinning Harry Truman holding up the botched Chicago Tribune headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”  But Dewey had an active career before and after his stunning defeat, and did more than anyone else to shape the Republican response to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

For most of his career, Dewey was associated with New York City and East Coast establishment Republicanism, as opposed to the Midwestern conservatism of his great party rival Robert Taft.  Actually, Dewey grew up in small-town Michigan before moving East and becoming a celebrated crime-fighter, serving as special prosecutor with a mandate to combat corruption in New York City.  Dewey made national headlines with his racket-busting exploits, and his fame helped him win the New York governorship in 1942, in the process reviving a nearly moribund Republican Party.

Dewey served three terms as governor of what was then the nation’s largest state, and was the Republican nominee for president in 1944 and 1948.  He became the rallying point for moderates in the GOP partly because he was one of the few Republicans able to win in heavily urban and historically Democratic areas and to reach out to new constituencies.  His primary appeal was to middle-class professionals attuned to the need for social reform and an internationalist foreign policy, but who were uncomfortable with the Democratic Party’s reliance on corrupt city machines and Southern racists.

Unlike the stalwarts who continued to dominate what little remained of the Republican representation in Congress in the ‘30s and early ‘40s, Dewey believed that the Depression had permanently reshaped the political landscape and that it was insufficient for Republicans simply to denounce the New Deal and hope in vain for the eventual disappearance of the welfare state.  As Dewey said in his first gubernatorial address, “There has never been a responsible government which did not have the welfare of its people at heart… anybody who thinks that an attack on the fundamental idea of security and welfare is appealing to people generally is living in the Middle Ages.”  As governor, he put forward social programs that included unemployment insurance, sickness and disability benefits, old age pensions, slum clearance, state aid to education (including the creation of the State University of New York), infrastructure projects (particularly highway construction), and pathbreaking anti-discrimination legislation.

Dewey attempted to distinguish his programs from similar Democratic programs by running a government that was acknowledged to be clean, honest, and efficient.  His was pay-as-you-go liberalism, as he managed to implement his social programs while cutting taxes, reducing the state debt by over $100 million, and still achieving budget surpluses.  He also argued that while Republicans and Democrats might agree on social ends, the parties would differ in their means, with moderate Republicans emphasizing individual freedom and economic incentive over collectivization.  However, this relatively sophisticated position inevitably opened Dewey to conservative gripes of “me-tooism” and Democratic claims that he was offering a lesser version of the genuine article.

No one could credibly charge that “the Gangbuster” was a softie.  The toughness and even ruthlessness that he had exhibited while prosecuting mobsters carried over into his administration, and contributed greatly to his political effectiveness.  Dewey also displayed a skill for organization that most moderates lacked, and he was able to use his New York business and legal connections to build an effective national network within the GOP.

On the advice of his counselors and pollsters, Dewey took a high-road approach to try to preserve his frontrunner status in the 1948 presidential race.  Contrary to later allegations, he did defend the record of the GOP-controlled 80th Congress, and pointed out that the Republicans Truman attacked as “do-nothing” had supported the president’s Cold War internationalist program, including the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, and the Vandenberg Resolution that opened the way to NATO and other regional defensive alliances.  But Dewey’s failure to counter Truman’s slashing attacks, or to exploit the Democrats’ potential vulnerability on the issue of Communism, cost him the election.  It’s perhaps significant that no other presidential contender since Dewey has worn a mustache, which made him look (in one cruel but memorable phrase) “like the little man on top of the wedding cake.”

Despite his loss, Dewey retained his political network and his desire to see the moderate, internationalist position prevail within the GOP.  He was instrumental in pushing the moderate Dwight Eisenhower to run for the presidency in 1952, selecting Richard Nixon as Ike’s vice presidential running-mate, and securing the victory of the internationalists over Taft and the non-interventionists at the Republican convention.  Eisenhower’s victory cemented the triumph of Stimson- and Dewey-style internationalism within the GOP, but the bitterness of Taft’s conservative supporters at having been denied what they considered to be their rightful nomination would erupt with Barry Goldwater’s victory over moderate and Eastern Republicans in 1964.

Goldwater suffered a defeat of historic proportions in the presidential election, and dragged down Republican office-seekers across the nation.  GOP representation in the Senate was reduced to 32 seats out of 100, in the House to 140 out of 435, while the party lost nearly 500 state legislative seats.  It became fashionable among conservatives to assert that Goldwater actually won the election sixteen years later, with the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan.  However, the triumph of conservatism in 1980 was in large part the result of liberalism’s drastic overreach at home and abroad under Johnson’s presidency, a failure that was unforeseeable and unlikely to recur on the same massive scale.

Republicans seeking a path back to majority status might consider the continuing relevance of two of Dewey’s key strategies for Republicans.  The first is that the GOP is a national party, one that should not write off any region or race or ethnicity.  It’s startling to recall that 70% of African-Americans living in the Northeast voted for Eisenhower in 1956.  And second, the party is an ideological coalition in which diverse views can coexist so long as there is unity on basic principles.  Dewey granted that American politics would be simpler if the GOP consisted only of conservatives, but “The results would be neatly arranged, too.  The Republicans would lose every election and the Democrats would win every election.”

Originally posted on January 29, 2009

Recent Posts by Geoffrey Kabaservice

10 Comments so far ↓

  • ESB

    Great series! It’s refreshing to read an account of Dewey, mustache and all, that doesn’t depict him as a dartboard. However, I’m not sure how much today’s Republicans can learn from him. 70 percent of northeastern African-Americans voted Republican in 1956 because, in 1956, Republicans were the party of civil rights. Good luck getting them back from Obama! Perhaps the big tent has a better shot, but hasn’t the insurmountable problem of the Reagan coalition been that different factions have different, fissiparous basic principles with as much potential to divide as to unite? Of course, the same is true of the Democrats to the nth degree, so maybe Dewey’s role in the old Republican party does have something to teach today’s GOP about togetherness.

  • sinz54

    While we conservatives poked fun at Howard Dean, I gotta admit that his vision of a “50 state strategy” for the Dems finally paid off with the election of Barack Obama. It meant that the Dems could go on the offensive, challenging the GOP in Ohio and Florida, and even in Montana and Indiana. In contrast, the Karl Rove playbook of “Red States + Ohio” managed to put together 51% majorities in the Electoral College for Bush in both 2000 and 2004. But at the expense of writing off the rest of the nation. That made it a high risk strategy in the long term–if Ohio tipped Democrat, the GOP could no longer win an Electoral College majority with that playbook. And now that has happened. The GOP cannot effectively challenge the Dems’ “50 state” offensive strategy with a “51%” defensive strategy. The GOP must now go on the offensive too, attempting to peel away Blue States (and Ohio may now be one of them) from the Dems.

  • erasmuse

    Dewey’s strategy of accommodation to the New Deal led to defeat in 1944 and 1948, not victory. The race was his to lose in 1948, Truman being considered a second-rate hack who had become president by luck. In 1952 the Republicans did win, but only because the Democrats were worn out by scandal and policy failure, and the Republicans couldn’t make their control of Congress stick for more than a couple of years.

    Not an example we want to follow.

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  • rjcrawford33

    Yes interesting series and vital lessons of tolerance, big tent, and accomodation. Kinda indicates just how far the GOP needs to go to get people like me back. Not that it would want me, of course.

  • sinz54

    rjcrawford33: Kinda indicates just how far the GOP needs to go to get people like me back.
    What kind of person are you?

  • sinz54

    ESB: Perhaps the big tent has a better shot, but hasn’t the insurmountable problem of the Reagan coalition been that different factions have different, fissiparous basic principles with as much potential to divide as to unite?

    The Dems used to be even worse in this regard. They united blacks and Catholics in the North, with segregationists like George Wallace and Lester Maddox in the South. (That changed after 1966, when the segregationists left the Dem Party.)

    Why would ANY blacks, anywhere in the nation, want to be in the same party with white segregationists?

    Because liberal Dems provided Northern blacks with jobs, and brought them into the American mainstream.

    The Dems realized that a rising tide is inherently inclusive: Keep the economy growing, and everybody wants to get on board.

    The expansionist Reagan years did the same thing for conservatives.

    A party’s coalition starts to fracture when a stagnant economy makes life into a zero-sum game: One faction can only get more at the expense of another.

    That happened to the Jimmy Carter administration, and the Dems were destroyed.

    Now it happened to the Bush administration, and the GOP was similarly destroyed.

  • Carney

    1964′s Goldwater conservatives were quite different from the 1950s Taft conservatives on foreign policy.

    Goldwater and his backers were Cold Warriors through and through – supporters of NATO and other anti-Communist alliances, determined not to let any more states fall to Communist aggression even if that meant war, and advocating all means of confrontation and rollback short of war in the understanding that the Soviets intended a slow-motion world conquest and that peaceful co-existence was impossible.

    To call Goldwater’s nomination a resurgence of embittered non-interventionists is flat-out wrong.