Jim Pinkerton argues that Barack Obama can channel Harry Truman by running for reelection against a Republican Congress that misunderstood its mandate and tried to unravel the New Deal. Pinkerton:
The strategy of targeting the Republican Congress worked for Truman in 1948. Not only did the 33rd president score a come-from-behind victory over the hapless Dewey on November 2, but his coattails brought huge Democratic gains in both the Senate and the House–nine Senate seats, 75 House seats–bringing Democrats back into a substantial majority.
To sum up, Truman turned the ’48 election into a referendum on the New Deal and the welfare state. Thanks to Truman’s efforts, in the minds of the voters, the choice was clear: Vote Truman and Democratic and keep the New Deal, or vote Republican and end the New Deal.
Pinkerton is right in two important respects: Harry Truman was closer to the American majority on size-of-government questions in 1948 and consequently beat the Taft Republicans in that election. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, the “Do Nothing” Congress had policy accomplishments that far outlasted its electoral majorities.
For starters, the 80th Congress did not try to repeal the New Deal. But when it did try to pare it back, it didn’t tinker around the edges. Wartime price controls were repealed. The closed shop was banned. The national health insurance program Pinkerton mentions in his column was defeated. Food stamps and embryonic federal subsidies for child care were abolished. And the federal role in the middle-class housing market was sharply limited. Virtually every one of these accomplishments significantly outlasted the Republicans’ congressional majority, with some lasting until today. The Truman health care, which was to the left of Obamacare, never became law. The spending that Congress cut largely stayed cut. A European-style economy and polity was avoided.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a confrontation between Obama and the Paul Ryan Republicans would end as well today. Obama has passed much of his legislative program and the Republicans haven’t cut anywhere nearly as much spending. The enactment of the Ryan plan would require lasting Republican majorities, not evanescent majorities. But given the stakes, that may well be an argument for moving boldly and decisively where possible and letting the political chips fall where they may. In other words, it may be as much of an argument against plans that require permanent Republican majorities as it is an argument for Republican passivity in the face of burgeoning debt and increasingly insolvent entitlements.