How Much Difference Would a Republican Make? (Fortune, 1952)

September 2, 2012, 2:00 PM UTC

Editor’s note: Each week we publish a story from Fortune’s archives. Much of the news this week has focused on the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fl. Americans everywhere have weighed in on claims made by the GOP that the country needs Mitt Romney in the White House.  In 1952, Fortune ran the following opinion piece, asking how a Republican might run the country differently than the then-current President Harry Truman. Some of the arguments then look like they could be ripped from the debate over candidates today. It just goes to show that people — and politics — never change.

It could well be a Republican riding up Pennsylvania Avenue next Inauguration Day. What would a Republican President do with the government, and how much difference would he make?

Shortly before noon on Tuesday, January 20, 1953, a black touring car will leave the White House grounds and move ceremoniously up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, its route guarded by troops, District of Columbia police, and the Secret Service. It is possible that the car’s principal passenger will be a top-hatted Harry Truman. If so, he will have to be acknowledged as just about the most resilient politician this country has ever produced. But all in all, it seems more likely that Harry Truman, thirty-third President of the United States, will have distinguished company in the back seat: the thirty-fourth President of the United States, riding to his inauguration.

The thirty-fourth will not necessarily be a Republican, of course. He might be Fred Vinson, young Estes Kefauver, whom Truman despises but still regards as a Democrat, Paul Douglas, whom Truman also despises, Speaker Sam Rayburn, conceivably, or Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. The speculation peters out quite abruptly. Indeed, it is one of the most shattering commentaries on twenty years of Democratic rule that the Democratic party, with all of the great offices of state at its disposal, should have developed so little leadership of remotely presidential stature. Neither a Vinson nor a Kefauver, reasonably able though they are, could amount to a great deal except in a party that was trying to divest itself of a Truman. Yet none of this should obscure the bedrock fact that there are more die-hard, voting Democrats than Republicans in the U.S.: roughly 22 million vs. 18 million. Our national elections are decided, of course, by voters who switch from party to party, but the Republicans have to attract more of them than the Democrats do. Accordingly, a Democrat who can hold the South, and whose record somehow insulates him from the scandals, could run a formidable race.

But it could well be a Republican riding up Pennsylvania Avenue next Inauguration Day, and it is with that possibility that this editorial is concerned. What would a Republican President do with the government described in the following articles? How much difference would he make?

It is not a trivial question. The main reforms and social legislation of the New Deal are here to stay, and so are America’s responsibilities beyond the seas. Accordingly, Big Government is here to stay, and with it big budgets and high taxes.

When the campaign orators start warming up next summer, they will ask the voter to believe that the difference between a Republican administration and a Democratic administration is the difference between heaven and hell (or vice versa). This repels the voter who knows that our major parties are very broadly based, that certain matters are compromised within the parties to such an extent that they are virtually removed from debate between the parties. And out of this arises the literate fallacy that it really doesn’t make much difference who wins (except to the politicians and patronage seekers), a convenient belief for the thoughtful voter who is not quite thoughtful enough. For 1952, at any rate, it would be hard to devise a more dangerous cynicism.

FORTUNE believes 1952 is a year for vigorous partisanship. There is plenty to be partisan about. Specifically, we find six great issues, six areas in which the present Administration is neglecting or mishandling the national interest.

1. The Climate of Opportunity. In one of his most revealing state papers, his State of the Union message for 1949, Mr. Truman used the word “opportunity” ten times–opportunity for the government to do this or do that. The things Mr. Truman wanted government to do were for the advancement, he said, of individual opportunity. But here was no image of a government of limited powers; here was a government actively seeking to do things for which there was neither demonstrable need nor public clamor. It was simply the State unhinged from popular responsibility.

And the bureaucrats have been richly encouraged in their search for more authority by Mr. Truman and his relatively few but noisy disciples on Capitol Hill. To be sure, the Humphrey-Lehman brand of Fair Dealing has made little headway in Congress but the continual pressure and agitation for expansion of the federal role in American life has left the individual American continually on the defensive. The demotion of the Fair Dealers from the status of a faction within the majority party, a special faction bearing White House anointment, to that of a faction within the minority party would be a salutary change in the whole climate in which Americans are trying to do business and live their lives.

Mr. Truman’s economists, with their predilection for direct controls and their quasi-Keynesian habits of mind, have an entirely unjustified faith “in their ability to manipulate the economy. When the economy fails to behave according to plan–i.e., most of the time–Keyserling & Co. are disposed to “correct” it. A Republican administration would be more disposed to let the economy take its own shape, husbanding federal powers for truly major problems. It is unlikely that a Republican President would propose to put the government in the steel business as an anti-inflation measure.

The highest function of the federal government, so far as the domestic problems of the U.S. are concerned, should be to encourage private or local solutions. Yet the Democratic administrations have shown a strong and persistent bias toward the sweeping, centralized solution. And this, in turn, has corrupted the independence of the states and communities, which appear so often today as a mere queue in Washington. Majority sentiment in the Republican party, as Dewey, Warren, and other G.O.P. governors have notably demonstrated, is as much concerned with the general welfare as the Democrats are. But the Republican party confesses to a bias toward opportunity as well as security.

One of the tragic disservices Mr. Truman has done the country (in which he has been abetted, be it noted, by lingering Bourbons of both parties) has been to conceal the very wide agreement among the American people that the federal government does have a legitimate role in welfare and security, that most of the social and economic legislation of the 1930’s, and some of the accompanying “leveling,” did in fact strengthen U. S. capitalism. An administration that was willing to operate within this area of agreement, instead of stressing all the federal interventions that Americans do not want, could indeed create a new and immensely invigorating climate for opportunity.

2. Control of the Budget. A potent influence on the whole climate of opportunity is, of course, the federal budget, and under Harry Truman that influence has been a profoundly discouraging one. The budget is now crowding the limits of America’s capacity to pay taxes. In the current fiscal year, the U.S. Government is spending approximately $70 billion–roughly $50 billion for defense, an untouchable $5.9 billion for servicing of the national debt, and about $15 billion for the “civilian” side of the government.

The $50 billion for defense may be just about right–as a sum of money. Whether we are getting full value for the money is something else, and Harry Truman is hardly the ideal man to see that we do. From time to time, it is true, he takes a strong stand for “economy” in the Defense Department. Truman tells the military he can let them have only so much money, $15 billion in fiscal 1950, perhaps $50 billion this time–anyway some good round sum–and it is up to them to figure out how to use it. This is something very different from a steady, informed scrutiny of the Defense Department’s operations–which might or might not result in budget cuts but almost certainly would yield more defense per dollar.

So far as non-defense expenditures are concerned, it is agreed by many eminent men of both parties, and dispassionate experts of no party, that several billion could be sweated out of federal spending with no impairment of essential services. Mr. Truman keeps saying show me how. He has been shown how, with facts and figures, over and over. The gimmick, of course, is the definition of “essential services.” If these are the services that a great majority of the American people accept as undisputed functions of the federal government, there is no doubt that they could be carried on for well under $15 billion. But if the definition is broadened to cover all the spending by which the Administration intends to ingratiate itself with one bloc of voters or another–not forgetting that vast bloc consisting of the federal employees themselves–then Mr. Truman is right. No cuts are possible and, what is worse, further increases are inevitable. Once the winning of elections by the spending of money becomes settled federal policy, there is no place to stop because there is always one more bloc that might be brought within the fold.

To be sure, a Republican President would have no easy time bringing the budget under control. He would find in his own party some long-parched spoilsmen. He would have to undertake the prodigious job of organizing the executive’s requests for money in a form that is intelligible to a conscientious Congressman. And Congress would have to reform its own procedures if the power of the purse were to be restored to Capitol Hill, which is where it belongs. The chaotic budget-writing methods of recent years have made it hard for the citizen taxpayer to find out where the real accountability for specific items of spending lies, though it is clear enough that the general spending power has somehow been captured by the executive branch.

A Republican President would bring to this sphere of government at least one great asset. Historically, his party has shown a better understanding than the Democrats of the ways in which wealth is actually produced, less disposition to believe that there are painless ways of summoning up wealth out of nowhere. “The silly, fool dollar sign,” F.D.R. said. And: “If our children have to pay interest on it [the national debt], they will pay that interest to themselves.” Mr. Truman is surrounded by people who periodically get drunk on figures. Keyserling & Co. have been in Washington so long that they forget that individual Americans, people with names and faces, have to work, hour by hour, dollar by dollar, to create such statistical splendors as the “gross national product” and the “national income”–and the federal budget.

3. Defense of the Dollar. The Democrats are historically a soft-money party, and the last twenty years have piled up an overwhelming body of evidence on their inability to deal with fiscal affairs of the mid-century order. The financing of World War II was unsound from the start and resulted in an unnecessary depreciation of the dollar. The Governors of the Federal Reserve Board fought to no avail against the Administration’s excessive reliance on direct controls and its neglect of the great fiscal and monetary weapons. Since the war they have patiently labored to persuade an Administration that would not, or perhaps simply could not, understand that monetary policy–which is essentially the control of credit-is fundamental to any real attack on inflation. Last year the Reserve won an important victory, but it is a precarious one so long as the President and Secretary of the Treasury are at heart soft-money men.

One brilliant Secretary of the Treasury might be able to consolidate the victory for at least a generation. One brilliant Secretary of the Treasury might be able to attract a group of first-class young career men who would set a tradition of excellence and integrity that would serve to re-establish financial confidence and respect. And let no Democratic campaigners suppose that a hard dollar concerns only a few flinty-minded old men cursing Truman in their clubs. The recent growth of union pension funds, for example, becomes an empty triumph for labor if the value of the dollar is to be halved in the next twenty years, as it was in the last twenty. Stable money is one of the great underpinnings of a healthy economy–and a just society.

4. Rearmament Economics. The most important thing that has been going on in the U.S. in the past eighteen months has been the effort to rebuild our military strength. Like the war in Korea that inspired it, the rearmament effort, as of early 1952, can be considered no more than half successful. For months Washington has talked knowingly of production “slippages” and schedule “shortfalls.” Mr. Truman himself was finally obliged to admit, in his State of the Union message of January 9, that there have been serious “difficulties and delays” in production of tanks and planes–in other words in about half the “hard” procurement program.

Harry Truman cannot be held responsible for the careless economics and mental rigidities that have been accumulating in the U.S. military mind for many generations. And the Republicans can make no partisan hay out of certain failures and misjudgments that must be charged up to the office of Defense Mobilizer Charles Wilson, a Truman appointment that was popular with both parties and particularly with businessmen. What Mr. Truman should answer for are the essentially political decisions that so often set the framework in which the Pentagon and ODM must work. And many of these decisions have betrayed pathetically meager understanding of the processes by which economic power is translated into military power. A notable case was the OPS ceilings on machine-tool prices, just a small aspect of Mike Di Salle’s great windmill-tilting operation, but for many months a major impediment to machine-tool production and hence to the expansion of aircraft production.

Here again a Republican administration, closer to the realities of economics, could be expected to do a better job than the Democrats, or at least place fewer obstacles in the way of production.

5. Foreign Policy. The Truman Administration’s failures in foreign policy are old and sorry reading. Let us look a little way ahead: Sometime within the term of the President elected Next November, American statecraft may be supremely tested. By 1954, if the defense effort really gets rolling this year, the build-up of our own forces and those of the NATO allies, backed by new weapons, may give us virtually unchallengeable power. What do we do with it? We could blunder into war with Russia. Or, through timidity or complacency, we could try to hide from the implications of our own strength. But if our Administration has enough diplomatic skill, enough foresight, imagination, and confidence, we might take the initiative for a real peace.

None of these qualities, unfortunately, has been conspicuous in the Truman administration’s handling of foreign policy. The President has shown plenty of courage and decisiveness in his reaction to such events as the Berlin blockade and the aggression against South Korea. But almost always (two exceptions; ECA, Point Four) his administration has been reacting to international events, rather than anticipating them or attempting to shape them. And this is its gravest disqualification for office at a time when American power may have removed the most obvious, immediate dangers to national security and put in their place the opportunity for creative action.

It is often said in extenuation of Truman’s foreign policy that he inherited much of it from Franklin Roosevelt. But his inheritance of April, 1945, included a great deal more than Yalta and Cairo and Tehran. It included (1) victory, and (2) the greatest military power ever assembled by any nation on earth. These were a substantial legacy, largely squandered.

6. The Tone of Government. More shocking than the actual venality so far disclosed in Washington is the fact that the President of the United States was not shocked–until he was finally persuaded that he was being hurt politically. And as the lax standards of the courthouse hangers-on have spread across the capital, the whole tone of government has been degraded. There are many devoted men in the U.S. Government, many admirable enterprises going forward in Washington; there is grandeur in the city itself and certainly in the traditions and history crystallized there. It is one of the peculiar tragedies of Harry Truman, a great reader and lover of American history, that his Administration has made all this seem shabby.

We have come this far asking just one question: How much difference would a Republican make? In six fields–economic opportunity, budget control, defense of the dollar, rearmament, foreign policy, and the tone of government–we conclude that a Republican President could make a great and valuable difference. But there is, of course, a related question: Which Republican?

So far as foreign policy is concerned, the specific defects and inconsistencies in Taft’s record are perhaps less important than the grudging quality of his acceptance of America’s international responsibilities, as compared with Eisenhower’s matured grasp of the fundamentals of world power and politics. The same criticism can be made of several Republicans who, in the event of a G.O.P. sweep, would be elevated to key places on the congressional committees dealing with foreign affairs. Their voting record must of course be read as the record of an opposition, and opposition is something different from direct responsibility for the national security. Whether they would assume the responsibility more effectively under Taft, a regular with the respect of the regulars, or under Eisenhower, who has shared none of their doubts about the U.S. role abroad, is a speculation of some importance.

Eisenhower has administered vast enterprises, which Taft has not. On the other hand, Eisenhower’s generally sound and decent instincts in domestic policy are just that, and as yet nothing more. In Taft the same instincts are informed by an immensely detailed knowledge of government and economics. A curiously underrated candidate (in the Democratic party of 1952 he would be a giant) is Governor Warren, who combines at least some of the Taft and Eisenhower assets in one record.

Waiving comment on the somewhat shopworn figure of Harold Stassen, we suggest that the question of which Republican, important though it is, is still the lesser question. Only once before in U.S. history has one party held power for so long as the Democrats have now been in office. (The Republicans, from 1861 to 1885). The great drive, vitality, and conviction that marked the Democrats of the early New Deal is gone. In the Washington of 1952, a vast amount of time must be given over to defense of past error. The Democrats generate no new ideas, they offer no real leadership and certainly no inspiration. It is time for a change.