Saturday, June 9, 2012

Desperately seeking Dewey

By Bill Kraus

I cast my first vote for president in 1948. I voted for Thomas Dewey. He lost. Since he lost to Harry Truman who later became an almost iconic figure in American history I didn’t talk much about my first vote. A little embarrassed.

Then I read a book about the contributions that presidential losers have made to the betterment of the country across the years. Henry Clay was definitely the top of the “should have beens” but was undermined by bad timing.

Stephen Douglas, who knew, devoted most of his energy to stopping the secessionists and saving the Democratic party after losing to Lincoln in 1860.

Even the flamboyant bible thumper William Jennings Bryan gets credit for many of the developments he never got into office to enact but his successors from both parties acceded to.

My biggest surprise, however, was Thomas Dewey.

I don’t know who I credited with the kind of Republicanism I tried to practice, but it sure wasn’t Dewey. It should have been.

He set the pace and was the model for the kind of governing that Eisenhower, Nixon, and Republican governors and legislators everywhere followed, advanced and succeded on.

What Dewey told the Republicans was that they should pursue progressive ends by conservative means.

Dewey had no desire to see the parties sharply divided along ideological lines and thought a large part of the strength of American democracy was the general similarities between the two parties.

This view was and still is highly objectionable to a vociferous few. They rail at both parties, saying they represent nothing but a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Dewey pointed out that this view was usually expressed by people who had no experience in governing and that none of them contributed much to the sober, tough business of it.

Not “me too” at all, Dewey was far ahead of the Democrats in tackling racial discrimination.

He even presaged the Libertarians (those without the anarchist gene) and looked to how to provide for the people’s welfare without sacrificing personal freedom. That was where he believed the Republicans held an advantage.

He even had a self-effacing sense of humor. After his defeat in 1948 he told a audience of young people “Any boy can become president--unless he’s got a mustache.”

He told the Republican Party that Americans are conservative. What they want to conserve is the New Deal. The welfare state is here to stay.

The Tea Party movement to purge the remnants of Republican liberals and moderates and pursue the party realignment of pure conservatism is what Dewey dreaded and predicted would lead to political disaster.

Bring back Dewey? Please. And soon.

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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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