Special Report

Romney’s Tom Dewey Moment

Obamacare tax confusion a warning sign: the peril of playing it safe.

By 7.6.12

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Thomas E. Dewey.

The president who might have been.

The Romney campaign's stumble over Obamacare (it's a penalty…no…wait…it's a tax! Yes! Yes! We're sure now…it's a tax!) was both unnecessary and avoidable.

If the Romney campaign isn't careful (as our friends at the Wall Street Journal noted here), the morning after the 2012 election they may well find themselves linked forever to the famously hapless 1948 campaign of Tom Dewey. The campaign everyone expected to be a hands-down winner -- which turned into the greatest upset in American political history at the hands of underdog President Harry Truman.

 As the famous George Santayana quote reminds: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

So in light of the Romney stumble, perhaps the most pertinent question about the past that was the shocking Dewey loss is: why? Why exactly did Governor Thomas E. Dewey, the man every political analyst in the country believed was a certifiable winner over Truman -- lose?

Let's do the Santayana thing here and remember the past of the Dewey campaign.

To set the stage, by 1948 Democrats had held the White House for 16 years. First with the elections of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936 -- then FDR's record shattering third and fourth elections in 1940 and 1944. Roosevelt died months after taking office in 1945, leaving his new and unknown vice president, former Missouri Senator Truman, suddenly in the Oval Office.

Under ordinary circumstances this would have been no small thing. But April 12th of 1945 -- the day FDR died -- was no small ordinary moment. World War II raged. The Allies were finally moving swiftly through Europe but Adolf Hitler was still very much alive. In the Pacific, the war against Japan was furiously ongoing, with no end in sight.

Truman, a totally unknown quantity outside of Missouri and Washington, D.C., stepped in and did a magnificent job as Commander-in-Chief. By April 30 Hitler was dead, by May the Germans had surrendered. In August, two atomic bombs shocked the Japanese into surrendering the following month. Politically speaking, Truman was riding high.

But with the war over, the grittier problems of the economy, returning GIs, and the dawn of the Cold War began to surface. Rapidly, Truman's approval ratings began to drop -- then to tank. The popular phrase of the day was "To err is Truman." By July of 1948, having easily turned back stiff primary challenges, Governor Dewey, who had lost to FDR in 1944 (unsurprisingly -- no one could have upended Roosevelt in the middle of the war) was acclaimed as the GOP nominee. Picking popular liberal GOP California Governor Earl Warren as his running mate, the Dewey campaign began.

The theme? Unity. As Dewey biographer Richard Norton Smith quotes a Dewey speechwriter, unity would be "the clothesline on which speeches would be hung."

Why the bland concept of unity? Well, went the reasoning, the economy was in turmoil, Berlin had been blockaded, China was in the middle of civil war, the Middle East had just exploded in the first Arab-Israeli War, the State of Israel being only weeks old. Fresh from World War II, the concern was that World War III was teetering on the brink.

So what decision did Dewey make? What was to be the day-to-day of the Dewey campaign?

Play it safe.

But why? There was an answer.

Films about FDR always love to show a clip of FDR laughingly talking about his famous dog Fala. But they never give the context that involved Dewey -- and in fact it was an incident that was directly responsible for Dewey's decision to play it safe in 1948.

By 1944, FDR's ill-health was apparent to many. With no television in the day and only newsreels and still photos, carefully protected by the press, be that as it may rumors about his health had begun to gain traction. He was, purported one tale, in a Miami sanitarium. Another version had him in a Chicago hospital. Dewey himself believed FDR had suffered a stroke at the South Carolina plantation of philanthropist Bernard Baruch.

The task for FDR was plain. Get back in front of the newsreel cameras and the still cameras -- not to mention the radio microphones -- and hit Dewey hard. He did. On September 23, 1944, sitting while delivering a speech to a group of labor activists, Roosevelt began to un-spool the Fala story.

Minnesota's Republican Congressman Harold Knutson had charged that on the return from a trip to Hawaii to review the status of the war in the Pacific, Roosevelt, "accompanied by a flotilla of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers that should have been out in the far Pacific fighting the Japs," had mistakenly left Fala behind on the Aleutians. Fala's absence was not discovered until the presidential party arrived in Seattle, and, according to Knutson, a U.S. destroyer was sent "a thousand miles" to retrieve the dog and re-unite him with his presidential master.

FDR took the Fala story, which was false, and spun it out into the famous clip of how the GOP was attacking "my little dog Fala."

What's not realized is that the speech FDR was there to give was a fiery rebuttal to Dewey's charge that Democrats were responsible for the Great Depression and a lack of war preparedness. And while the Fala clip doesn't show it, in fact after he said it, the audience cheering, FDR leaned over to CIO boss William Green and observed: "They liked that, didn't they?"

Indeed, "they" -- his audience of labor leaders -- loved it. So the President plunged in, whipping up the crowd. At one point the President even compared what he called Republican "propaganda techniques" to Hitler's infamous book Mein Kampf. As noted by Dewey's biographer Smith, one audience member "beat a silver bread tray with a soup ladle" while another "smashed glasses with wine bottles" each time FDR hit a punch line. The speech was FDR unleashed.

And learning of it, Tom Dewey decided not to play it safe. Secluding himself with his speechwriter he would take the opportunity of a speech in Oklahoma City to dish it right back to FDR.

And so he did. Word was out and the local GOP, fired up, filled the local Municipal Auditorium to overflowing. Stomping and cheering they shouted "Tom, Tom." Dewey let loose. He went after FDR in no uncertain terms for "mudslinging, ridicule and wisecracks." The Fala speech had "plumbed the depths of demagoguery by dragging into this campaign the names of Hitler and Goebbels." Because of this, Dewey said, he was being forced to leave the highroad -- briefly -- to "set the record straight." The crowd was in a frenzy of excitement as Dewey said: "He has made the charges. He has asked for it. Here it is."

What followed was a fiery campaign speech in which Dewey discussed his policies across the board, from the economy to the war. Shouts arose from the audience yelling "Pour it on."

The Dewey speech was judged by a poll of 48 journalists on his train -- a group not considered "Dewey partisans" -- to have been a rousing success, with the majority giving the edge to Dewey in his exchange with FDR. Headlines across the country hailed Dewey, his crowds swelled.

There was one problem. Dewey.

The nominee confided to his campaign manager that the Oklahoma speech was "the worst damned speech I ever made." He never did it again, although in fairness the odds were long that Dewey or anyone else could have defeated FDR under the circumstances.

But by 1948, the Oklahoma City speech still rankled Dewey. He was not going to conduct his campaign against Truman on anything other than what Dewey considered to be the "high road."

He would -- and did -- play it safe. And lost the White House in a spectacular upset.

And what unsettling similarity in the thus far unfolding 2012 campaign reminds of Dewey?

In biographer Smith's words of the Dewey play it safe strategy:

So there it was: a neat combination of personal preference, bad memories, political necessity, and genuine statesmanship, wrapped up in the unanimous support of trusted advisers and state party leaders." 

The "bad memories" of course, revolved around the Oklahoma City speech.

Stop.

"Bad memories."

What constitutes "bad memories" for the Romney campaign?

Exactly. Two things quite specifically: Romneycare and the "flip-flopper" business.

The Governor was hammered again and again and again on these two issues during the primaries, doubtless producing a reflexive, Dewey-like sensitivity on both. As the WSJ noted in its July 5th editorial on Romney's tax screw-up response to the Court, cited above:

Why make such an unforced error? Because it fits with Mr. Romney's fear of being labeled a flip-flopper, as if that is worse than confusing voters about the tax and health-care issues. Mr. Romney favored the individual mandate as part of his reform in Massachusetts, and as we've said from the beginning of his candidacy his failure to admit that mistake makes him less able to carry the anti-Obamacare case to voters.

But the game has changed -- changed Big Time -- because of the Supreme Court decision. The failure of the Romney campaign not to understand that it has changed to their advantage could be, if not corrected, a considerable Dewey-style mistake.

What Chief Justice Roberts did -- and we're speaking here not in a constitutional sense but a political sense -- is infuriate the conservative base of the GOP. All those people who were just Mild About Mitt.

Now they are flocking -- unasked -- to the Governor's side. As was well reported, the Romney campaign was abruptly flooded with some $4.6 million in campaign contributions from voters apoplectic over the Supreme Court's decision.

All of which is to say -- Romney sensitivities notwithstanding -- the story is no longer that Mitt Romney can't carry the health care message. The political landscape has changed dramatically. Now?

Now the Message is Carrying Mitt.

No one but Obama underlings in Chicago give the proverbial rat's rear end what Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts with Romneycare. As demonstrated in a blink by all those thousands who gave millions to the Romney campaign -- unasked.

Back to the 1948 Dewey campaign.

By September, Dewey was out on the trail in earnest. Being, in Smith's words, "reasonable."

Said Candidate Dewey of his opponent, sounding distinctly like Romney aides on the tax/penalty issue:

I will not contend that all our difficulties today have been brought about by the present national administration….only part are deliberately caused for political purposes. It is not too important how these conditions came about. The important thing is that as Americans we turn our faces forward and set about curing them with stout purpose and a full heart.

In short, Dewey was flatly refusing to use Truman's own highly unpopular record against him. No more Oklahoma City for him.

As the New York Times noted approvingly: 

Governor Dewey is deliberately avoiding any sharp controversy with the Democratic incumbent.

The Times wasn't the only journalistic outlet to pick up on this approach. The New Republic's Richard Strout wrote that Dewey's "bland refusal to deal with issues, (has) gotten under everybody's skin."

Stop again.

A Dewey refusal to deal with issues.

What did the WSJ say on this score of Romney? Uncannily, The WSJ channels the New York Times and Mr. Strout in 1948 on Dewey:

The Romney campaign thinks it can play it safe and coast to the White House by saying the economy stinks and it's Mr. Obama's fault. We're on its email list and the main daily message from the campaign is that "Obama isn't working." Thanks, guys, but Americans already know that. What they want to hear from the challenger is some understanding of why the President's policies aren't working and how Mr. Romney's policies will do better.

And what was said over at the National Journal? This:

It's becoming clear that Romney has decided to focus on the economy at the expense of everything else, even issues that could play to his political benefit. He's avoided criticizing the administration's handling of the botched Fast and Furious operation, even as it threatens to become a serious vulnerability for the president. He's been silent in responding to Obama's immigration executive order, not wanting to offend receptive Hispanics or appear like a flip-flopper. He appears more likely to tap a safe, bland running mate like Ohio Sen. Rob Portman or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty who won't do him any harm but won't benefit him much either.

And what has Bill Kristol posted over at the Weekly Standard? This:

Remember Michael Dukakis (1988) and John Kerry (2004)? It's possible to lose a winnable presidential election to a vulnerable incumbent in the White House (or in the case of 1988, a sitting vice president). So, speaking of losing candidates from Massachusetts: Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to get off autopilot and actually think about the race he's running?

Adopting a prevent defense when it's only the second quarter and you're not even ahead is dubious enough as a strategy. But his campaign's monomaniacal belief that it's about the economy and only the economy, and that they need to keep telling us stupid voters that it's only about the economy, has gone from being an annoying tick to a dangerous self-delusion. 

What all these different sources are noting is in essence the same thing: Mitt Romney and his campaign are behaving like Thomas E. Dewey in 1948.

Back in October of last year, the Wall Street Journal's Dan Henninger observed of Romney that: 

This candidate will have to be pushed a lot harder to make him a good president.

Based on Romney's confused response to the Supreme Court ruling, his apparent unwillingness to thread issues other than the economy into a Reaganesque narrative of a failed president, and the impression he is giving in all manner of quarters that like Tom Dewey he is going to play it safe, the estimable Mr. Henninger may have made a mistake.

The real truth here may be that "this candidate will have to be pushed a lot harder to make him a good -- make that winning -- presidential candidate."

The time to stop playing it safe is now.

Remember Thomas E. Dewey -- the president who might have been. And never was.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.