Principle or popularity? It’s a choice political movements always face sooner or later. And it’s a choice conservatives are having to make now, as the 2000 presidential race begins. The glittering national ratings of Texas governor George W. Bush have led many conservatives to endorse him; but other conservatives are opting for candidates to whom they are closer philosophically.
It’s a tough decision-and one that conservatives have had to make before. In 1952, the contest for the GOP nomination was essentially between Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Sen. Robert A. Taft-between eastern liberals and midwestern conservatives, between “modern” Republicans and “regular” ones, between pragmatists eager to win and idealists for whom principle was as important as victory. In the short term, the idealists lost. But by sticking to principle, they managed to advance their cause in the long run.
On Sunday evening, July 6, 1952, the day before the Republican convention opened, Sen. Taft conducted a news conference at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago. He held high a large bundle of telegrams-530 of them-from delegates pledged to him until hell froze over. “It was perhaps the most impressive display of political strength made by any political leader in American history,” wrote Richard Rovere, a liberal journalist. Rovere was not the only one to note the strong emotions that Taft aroused among his delegates, who saw in the Ohio senator not just a candidate but a political savior. Herbert Hoover, the only living Republican ex-president, endorsed Taft warmly, saying, “This convention meets not only to nominate a candidate but to save America.” Every Taft delegate believed that in his heart.
Taft seemed certain to win the 604 delegates needed for the nomination. His organization had apparently secured every possible political base, from the platform committee and credentials committee to the convention chairman. But the Eisenhower forces found a chink by challenging accredited delegates from the South, especially in Texas. Two Texas delegations had come to Chicago, one pledged largely to Taft, the other to Eisenhower, with each claiming to be the legitimate representatives of the Lone Star State.
The Eisenhower people denounced what they called “the Texas steal”; in a bit of street theater, masked “bandits” with guns carried placards that read “Taft Steals Votes” while other signs proclaimed that “RAT” stood for “Robert A. Taft.” A furious Taft replied that he had never stolen anything in his life and that the delegates had been chosen according to accepted Republican-party procedures of more than 80 years’ standing.
Taft was right: The stealing charge was, to use one of Ike’s favorite words, tommyrot. But the Eisenhower managers used the GOP’s lust for victory and the general’s five-star aura to successfully challenge slates in Georgia and Louisiana as well as in Texas. The convention delegates wanted to nominate Taft, but they had also seen polls indicating that Ike would beat any Democrat by a wide margin. Gallup had Eisenhower defeating Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, the likely Democratic nominee, by 59 to 31 percent. In a similar test between Taft and Stevenson, the latter held a 45-to-44 advantage. Republicans loved Taft, observed one commentator, but they loved victory more.
On the first ballot, the count stood at Eisenhower 595, Taft 500 (30 delegates having apparently noted an early frost in the nether regions), Earl Warren 81, Harold Stassen 20, and another general, Douglas A. MacArthur, 10. There was no second ballot as Minnesota asked to be recognized and changed its vote from Stassen to Eisenhower. Sen. John Bricker, for Taft, and Sen. William Knowland, for Warren, moved that the nomination be made unanimous.
There were plenty of recriminations in Taft’s camp. He had been overconfident about the New Hampshire primary, which he lost to Eisenhower. He had not appreciated the significance of the Texas challenge. Taft also carried the burden of being seen as a regional candidate, who lacked substantial support in the populous Pacific coast, let alone the eastern states that still ruled the Republican party. The easterners, led by Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, regarded Taft as an isolationist, a Jeffersonian reactionary, and a probable loser. They wanted to win and believed they would win with the war hero Eisenhower, a strong internationalist who was sympathetic to “modern” Republicanism, with its commitment to efficiently managed government.
Most important, there was no conservative movement that Taft could call on in a time of crisis. In fact, wrote Frank Hanighen in Human Events, the “capitalists” who should have been supporting Taft’s ideas were “either stupidly donating money to foundations which oppose his ideas or complacently waiting for his triumph at the polls.” Some things never change.
So what was Taft to do now that the party he had so loyally and effectively served had spurned him? His supporters were crying and cursing and threatening to walk out. Ike, reversing the usual practice, visited Taft in his Chicago headquarters. After Eisenhower declared that Taft’s cooperation in the forthcoming campaign was “absolutely necessary,” the senator graciously responded that he would do “everything possible in the campaign to secure [the general’s] election and to help in his administration.”
Still, Taft was flooded with letters from resentful supporters who vowed to work to defeat Eisenhower. Recognizing that a divided party spelled defeat, anxious Eisenhower aides proposed a summit meeting between the two Republican leaders. Taft agreed if Eisenhower would give “certain assurances” in advance: There would be no discrimination against Taft people during or after the campaign; no censorship of Taft’s proposals; a firm defense of the Taft-Hartley Labor Act; a “reasonably conservative farm policy”; and a sharp attack on President Truman’s foreign policy as developed at “Yalta, Tehran, Potsdam, and Manchuria.” In return, Taft promised to campaign “vigorously” for the ticket.
Following a two-hour breakfast meeting in New York City’s Morningside Heights in early September, a smiling Taft informed the press that the fundamental issue of the campaign, as accepted by Ike, was “liberty against the creeping socialism in every domestic field.” That fall, Ike campaigned more like Taft than Dewey. He echoed the 1952 party platform, drafted by Taft Republicans, which promised to clean up the State Department, fire the “hordes of loafers and incompetents” on the federal payroll, balance the budget, and provide a “general tax reduction.”
Sometimes, Ike even sounded like Sen. Joe McCarthy, charging, for example, that a national tolerance of Communism had “poisoned two whole decades of our national life” and insinuated itself into America’s schools, public forums, news channels, labor unions, “and-most terrifyingly-into our government itself.”
Eisenhower swept the electoral college, 442 to 89, and helped Republicans gain narrow majorities in both houses of Congress. This impressive performance owed a lot, as his supporters had always insisted, to Eisenhower’s extraordinary personal appeal. Demographic shifts, meanwhile, were breaking up FDR’s coalition. The suburbs were growing, and growing Republican.
But it was thanks to Bob Taft that the Republican party was united. Many Catholic Democrats, especially those of Irish and Polish background, voted Republican because of “Korea, Communism, and Corruption.” Ike carried four southern states because he had been forced to the right. Taft may have lost the nomination, but he won the election by insisting that the party and its presidential candidate wage an uncompromisingly conservative, anti-Communist campaign.
And the Eisenhower administration, working with Taft, started out reasonably conservative. Tragically, however, the partnership was not to last: Within six months Taft was dead. Without the anchor he provided, the Republicans drifted left-creating, for instance, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare- and lost their congressional majorities in the next elections.
So, now that Republicans have finally taken Congress back, what can Taft’s heirs do to ensure that their party does not again squander its opportunity by drifting leftward? His example provides clear lessons. Conservatives should set aside petty differences and unite as soon as possible behind a single presidential candidate. But they should also pledge to back the nominee, whoever he or she turns out to be, provided that moderate and liberal Republicans make the same pledge. And they should make certain, no matter the nominee, that the 2000 platform is a conservative one.
Above all, conservatives should act like conservatives, with no ifs, ands, buts, or hyphens. They should cling to certain fundamental principles-limited government, free enterprise, individual freedom and responsibility, traditional American values, a strong national defense-no matter how the polling winds blow and the heathen rage. For as Robert Taft demonstrated in 1952, integrity in victory and defeat is the sure foundation of a grand party-and country.