Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer recently asked of Senator Barack Obama, “Who does he think he is?” A fair response would be, “He thinks he is Thomas Dewey.”
The crux of Krauthammer’s question lay in Obama’s presumption of the trappings of the presidency, even though he has not yet won the election: his erstwhile plan to speak at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, as Presidents Kennedy and Reagan did; his campaign’s updated presidential seal, complete with Latin inscription; and his general carrying-on as though he were uniquely gifted to lead the United States from darkness into light.
In 1948, embattled and unpopular President Harry Truman, who had attained the top job on the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, faced an election challenge from Governor Thomas Dewey of New York. Almost no one expected Truman to defeat Dewey, a fearless prosecutor and accomplished executive from the vote-rich Empire State.
Sixty years later, although the parties are reversed (Obama is a Democrat; Dewey was a Republican), the parallels are evident. In 2008, as in 1948, a troubled, incumbent presidential party is being challenged by the most effective nominee its counterpart can muster.
Also in both years, the front-runner went about acting like he had the election in the bag. Krauthammer has catalogued Obama’s excesses in 2008. Dewey’s 1948 campaign, in an error for the ages, opted to avoid discussion of contentious issues. The rationale was that Dewey could sit on the strength of his party’s position, and that no good would come of picking fights.
Obama is frequently criticized for floating platitudinous nonsense about “hope” and “change” in lieu of serious policy. His oratory, like Dewey’s, enthralls cheering crowds, but the voting booth is a very private place. Once inside, as Dewey learned to his sorrow, voters may not make their mark for a candidate whose actual opinions remain a mystery.
Media favouritism is also a factor in 2008, as it was sixty years ago. Network news anchors opted to accompany Obama on his recent overseas trip – having never tagged along on any of Republican nominee Sen. John McCain’s many sojourns – and the kid-glove treatment Obama receives from the press exasperated his opponents throughout the Democratic primaries.
In 1948, the press heavily favoured Dewey, the Republican – how times change – and the image of Truman holding up the premature Chicago Daily Tribune headline reading, “Dewey Defeats Truman” remains among the most iconic in American history.
The question remains, then, will the presidential election of 2008 end up like that of 1948, with the dashing dauphin defeated by the hopeless underdog? Can McCain perform a Truman-style turnabout on his more photogenic foe? Certainly, he can.
In 1948, Truman’s troubles were both personal and partisan. Having overseen such controversial issues as the Fair Deal, the 1946 Republican takeover of Congress and, not least, the dropping of the atomic bomb, he had a lot to defend. Moreover, Truman’s Democratic Party was splintered, as Sen. Strom Thurmond led his Dixiecrats from the fold and former Vice President Henry Wallace took his Progressives out where the buses don’t run.
McCain has no such gargantuan problems in 2008. He has frequently differed from his own party and its unpopular president, which earns him credibility among the general electorate. And while there are hard feelings among some of McCain’s Republican colleagues, Obama’s promises to hike taxes and spending while fostering fist-bumping, towel-snapping friendships with the world’s worst dictators ensure the party will not be divided on Election Day.
If, as Truman did, McCain wages an aggressive, thoughtful campaign, he can defeat an opponent whom many have crowned already.
Dewey’s hubris is a principal reason that his name does not appear in the roll call of presidents. Hopefully, Obama has not learned this lesson of history.