Commentary Magazine


Why the Democrats Are Confident:
The GOP, They Think, is Riding for a Fall

Back in last November, when Harold Lavine went to Chicago to report a conclave of the top Democrats, he and other reporters found seasoned politicians there not only sanguine of a speedy comeback but, as one said, “in a virtual state of euphoria.” We asked him to find out why, and this article represents his summary of what he learned by listening to the Democrats in Chicago, at later conferences, and in personal interviews. 

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After two decades of uninterrupted power, occupancy of the White House had become for the Democrats not merely a habit but a natural right. So when the overturn came, they never concealed their belief that the Eisenhower administration was merely a caretaker government, and Dwight D. Eisenhower himself just a retired army general with a four-year temporary lease. Today that belief has become ebullient confidence. Come November 1954, any Democratic politician will tell you, the voters will serve notice on Mr. Eisenhower to start packing, the lease won’t be renewed in ’56.

For a time, say around six months ago, they had their periods of doubt and uncertainty. Although they secretly had suspected that Mr. Eisenhower would capture the Presidency, his electoral vote still came as quite a shock; while they were recovering, they suffered some moments of profound depression in which they saw themselves jobless and homeless for years. Some of them even fell victim to the thought that, like the Republicans before them, they might have to wander in the wilderness for as much as two cheerless decades.

The shock has worn off; except for an occasional twinge of fear (which they suffer whenever the Republicans start talking about the way Communists managed to infiltrate the Roosevelt and Truman administrations), the Democrats are their cocky selves again. Even before the upset in Wisconsin and the nationwide Democratic sweep this fall, they felt genuinely confident of recapturing the House next year. About the Senate, they were somewhat less optimistic; too many Democratic Senators are up for reelection. Yet even about the Senate they were not entirely pessimistic. Not only publicly but in private, too, they chortled that ’54 would be a Democratic year and so would ’56.

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In part, of course, this optimism is merely wishful thinking. The Democratic party is a party of professional politicians; and, though professional politicians are often concerned with principle, they usually are more concerned with power. A Norman Thomas may run for office year after weary year simply to expound his social-democratic philosophy; the professional politicians run to win. And, because that is their goal, they must believe at least in the possibility—preferably in the probability—of victory. With the professionals, it must always be a case of “Wait till next year.”

In part, also, this optimism stems from the fact that professional politicians frequently are the victims of their own campaign oratory. Genuine cynicism is just as rare among the politicians as among other members of the human race. When a Republican running for office, day after day, thirty times a day, accuses the Democratic party of being the party of war, corruption, and Communism, he inevitably comes to believe it—anyway, to a degree. And the same is true of a Democratic candidate who day after day, thirty times a day, accuses the Republican party of being the party of Wall Street, big business, isolationism, appeasement, and depression. Thus to a certain extent each party honestly considers the other incapable of governing. Looking back over the past eight or ten months, the Democrats feel the Republican party’s incompetence already is becoming clear. They see it, and they are convinced that, by next year, the majority of the voters will see it, too.

And, in part, the optimism is the result of the Democratic analysis of what happened in 1952. For although the election was a landslide for Mr. Eisenhower, it was not a landslide for the Republican party generally. Today the Republicans have only a majority of 3 in the House: on the basis of Mr. Eisenhower’s vote, they should have a majority of 50 or more. And in the Senate there now are actually more Democrats than Republicans; the lineup: 48 Democrats to 47 Republicans and 1 Independent, Wayne Morse, who is a Democrat at heart.

Now the Republicans have one explanation of this curious fact, the Democrats another. The Republicans insist the nation is basically Republican, and that it kept returning the Democrats to office in the past only because more Democrats than Republicans voted. Mr. Eisenhower won, they argue, because he was able to bring out this silent vote for the first time in twenty-four years. However, since these men and women did not have the voting habit, they voted for Mr. Eisenhower and that’s all. They didn’t vote for any candidate for Congress; if they had, there would have been a Republican landslide in the Congressional elections, too. Thus, reason the Republicans, if they can only develop the voting habit in the new, or returned, voters, they will continue to win, year after year, barring a catastrophe.

To the Democrats, naturally, all this is nonsense. The nation, they maintain, is basically Democratic. What happened in 1952, they say, was this: the Democratic party had been in power for twenty years, and any party in power that long will develop a few scandals. There had been a few, involving corruption and Communism, and even many longtime Democrats were fed up. Moreover, a new generation had come of age which couldn’t remember the bad old Hoover days. Here was General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, a national hero, not a Republican hero like General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, but a hero to Democrats and Republicans alike. He sounded as though all he wanted was to “clean up the mess in Washington,” with a Republican broom, true, but without sweeping out any Democratic policies.

As the Democrats analyze the 1952 election results, the nation did vote for a change—but for a change in faces, not in program. That is why so many Democratic Congressmen were elected despite the Eisenhower landslide.

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Thus, in the warm, rosy glow of retrospect, the Democrats view November 1952 almost as a godsend. Their attitude is that, after twenty years of backbreaking responsibility, they had grown weary; the party was full of aches and pains, the administration slipshod, careless, perhaps a bit too ready to sweep the 5-per-centers and the Communist agents under a rug while it rested its throbbing feet. What the voters did was not really to evict the Democrats from power but send them on a much-needed vacation—a vacation from responsibility—to regain their old vigor. Mr. Eisenhower is merely taking care of the White House (though not very well, of course) while the rightful owners are away.

Whether or not the Democrats are living in a state of euphoria, this much is true, as any reporter who covers a party conclave notes today: they are so hopeful of victory that they have actually begun to enjoy being the minority party. For the first time in twenty years they don’t have to worry about whether farm prices are going up, down, or sideways; that’s now the Republican party’s headache. If there is a drought in Texas and cattle are starving on the range, it’s not their problem; let Dwight D. Eisenhower pray for rain. And, while he’s about it, say the Democrats, let him also figure out how to make good on his promise to roll back the Iron Curtain, how to bring peace in the Middle East, how to achieve a sensible settlement in Trieste, how to keep the Western coalition from falling apart, and how to cut taxes and, at the same time, balance the budget and maintain a strong army, navy, and air force.

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For the first time in twenty years, Democrats don’t have to explain away anything (except how Communists got in the government during the 30’s and early 40’s). “It’s a pleasure to answer mail from my constituents these days,” a young Democrat Senator from a border state beamed at a cocktail party not long ago. “I no longer have to wrack my brains for ways of justifying what the administration has done. I just have to write: ‘Dear sir, I’m with you 100 per cent, and I’ll do everything I can for you, but you know how these Republicans are. They’re the party of big business, and they don’t give a tinker’s damn about the farmer.’ ”

He added: “I’m having a wonderful time.”

In plain fact, legislators usually have a wonderful time when they are in the minority—that is, if they are not in too small a minority and if they are not in the minority too long. It’s a chance to needle, to sabotage, to second-guess, to chorus, “We told you so!” A smart parliamentarian, a man skilled in cloakroom conspiracy, can upset the best-laid plans of the majority. A clever orator, particularly one with a razor tongue, can embarrass the majority time after time. And this is particularly true when the majority, in a way, is a majority in name only—the plight the Republicans find themselves in now—when it has all the responsibilities of the majority but frequently, because of absences, is in the numerical minority. Then the majority leader must come crawling for minority votes; sometimes the price is high.

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During the 1952 campaign the Democratic party was a badly divided party. Several Southern Democratic leaders actually came out for Mr. Eisenhower; others gave Adlai Stevenson only lukewarm support—or went fishing. This is not the case now. Adversity has served to reunite the party; and Mr. Eisenhower’s election automatically thrust into the background many of the issues which had divided it.

The major case of contention within the party was, of course, the issue of civil rights. As long as a Democrat sat in the White House, that issue constantly kept turning Democrat against Democrat. Now, civil-rights legislation has become Mr. Eisenhower’s responsibility, and the Democrats are in a blissful position. If the President fails to introduce a civil-rights program, the Northern Democrats can accuse him of betraying the nation’s minority groups, and if the President does introduce such a program, the Southern Democrats, for a change, will be able to wave the bloody shirt at someone other than a fellow Democrat. Ideologically, of course, Northern and Southern Democrats continue to disagree about civil rights, but politically they are now in a position where they don’t have to fight about it.

If the issue of civil rights is now dormant, that of the so-called tidelands is dead. The states now have jurisdiction over any oil they may contain; Congress passed the bill, Mr. Eisenhower signed it, and that is that.

There is another reason for this new era of good feeling in the Democratic party. During both the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, the Southerners often were made to feel like second-class Democrats: they might dominate the Congressional committees, but they had only a still, small voice—often no voice at all—in forming party policy. The Northerners, at times, were almost arrogant, boasting, “We can win without the South.”

This no longer is true. For one thing, the victory of Mr. Eisenhower demonstrated how preposterous the Northern boast really was; for another, the positions of the Northerners and the Southerners have been reversed.

For when a party is not in power, the men who dominate are naturally those who managed to win election themselves, even while the party was going down to defeat. In the Democratic party, this means the politicians from Southern and Border states. Moreover, by some strange coincidence, most of the real talent in the Democratic party is now concentrated in those same states. There are exceptions: Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, who came to Washington a brash and garrulous young man, but who has matured immensely since and is now a first-class politician; Jack Kennedy of Massachusetts, who is both personable and bright; “Soapy” Williams of Michigan, who does not always show good judgment, but is a terrific campaigner. However, the Southern and Border states have a dozen men or more to match them, including Lyndon Johnson of Texas, Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, Russell Long of Louisiana, John Sparkman of Alabama, Dick Russell of Georgia, George Smathers of Florida, Mike Monroney of Oklahoma, and Stu Symington of Missouri.

Moreover, the sectionalism which kept the Democratic party in a perpetual civil war while the party was in power has always obscured the fact that, by and large—with only a few outstanding mavericks—the Democrats are remarkably well agreed on policy—at least, as compared with the Republicans. And, though nobody really worked this policy out—it just grew—it has a remarkable inner consistency.

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To say that nobody really worked the policy out is not to criticize it. American politicians rarely are political theoreticians; like Americans generally, they are pragmatists who, faced with a problem, try one answer, then another, and keep blundering until they have blundered through. Even the British, who are the original blunderers through, frequently feel impelled to develop neat systems of political thought; the Laborites, and particularly the Labor intellectuals, have kept the presses of Britain hot with them. American politicians almost never feel such a compulsion. The last great exception probably was John C. Calhoun, but Franklin D. Roosevelt was far more typically American when he likened himself to a quarterback who just kept calling plays until he found one that worked.

Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933 with no foreign policy at all (unless his denunciation of the League of Nations in order to gain the support of William Randolph Hearst could be said to have made him an isolationist), and with a domestic platform on which William McKinley could comfortably have run. By trial and error (including his action in pulling the rug out from under the London Economic Conference), he became an internationalist and developed the present foreign policy of the United States. In doing so, he brought almost the entire Democratic party along with him. Here and there you can find a Democratic isolationist, but the Democratic party, unlike the Republican, does not have an isolationist wing. The party is overwhelmingly internationalist, and it accepts the burdens of internationalism—global spending programs, military alliances, a big army, navy, and air force, and farflung bases.

Similarly, again by a process of trial and error, Roosevelt developed a domestic program which had two virtues: so far as anyone could see, it kept the economy going (the Republicans said it kept the economy going headlong toward catastrophe); and it kept the Democratic party in office.

It was essentially a giveaway program, with something for every interest group. The unemployed were given jobs; the farmers were given subsidies and electric lights; industry was given cheap power; workers were given unemployment insurance, minimum wages, and the Wagner Act; the Negroes were given a boost toward economic and political equality. Just about everybody was given something except, perhaps, the members of the middle class, who rightly or wrongly—and with mounting intensity—felt they were being forced to pay for it all through inflation and taxes.

The political results quickly became clear: the Democratic party, which since the Civil War had been a sectional party, grew into a national party based on a broad coalition of all those who had received benefits from the New Deal. Economically, the nation took on new life. The Democrats didn’t realize why, at first. It was not until the recession of 1937 that most of them began to understand that what they had really been doing was giving the economy an inflationary shot in the arm. Ever since, although they never fail to pay lip service to such respected concepts as a balanced budget and a stable dollar, most Democrats basically have believed in government spending—and inflation.

Fortunately for the Democrats—and again, no one planned it that way—their foreign and domestic programs complement each other. An Eastern Republican may have a hard time reconciling his belief in a stable dollar with his acceptance of the nation’s world responsibilities. The latter means huge expenditures for defense that make a balanced budget impossible, at least in the immediate future—as Mr. Eisenhower and his Secretary of the Treasury, George Humphrey, have already discovered. This problem doesn’t plague the Democrats; they are internationalists who need not blink at the cost.

The Democrats developed this general philosophy of government—interventionism abroad, spending at home—only because they were forced to. They were in power; it was they who had to grapple with the problems, first domestic, then foreign, that plagued the nation. During all those years, however, the Republicans were in the same position the Democrats find themselves in now. They had only to sit back and criticize; they didn’t have to develop a program of their own. They didn’t have to develop the positive unity of a common philosophy; they had the negative unity of a common enemy—That Man in the White House.

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The result is that, compared with the Democrats, the Republicans are a divided party. On the basic question of foreign policy they still have not resolved the Great Debate of the 30’s—internationalism vs. isolationism. “Isolationism” has become a horrid word and the old isolationists now call themselves “nationalists.” Nevertheless, they haven’t changed much since Pearl Harbor. They still fear foreign entanglements. They’re still suspicious of Europe, for, after all, the Europeans are foreigners and, as every good isolationist knows, foreigners are forever starting wars that the United States must finish for them. And, while they’re aware of the menace of the Soviet Union, they do not consider it a physical menace, just as they never considered Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan physical menaces. They cannot escape the feeling that all the furor over the possibility of a third world war is really Democratic propaganda designed to justify huge defense spending. To these isolationists the explanation for the spread of Communism since the war lies primarily in the fact that Alger Hiss (and who knows what other traitors?) were in the State Department and that Roosevelt was soft toward Communism. With a good Republican in the White House, dedicated to rooting out the remaining traitors in government and elsewhere, the United States is well on its way to containing the menace, they reason.

The split within the Republican party over foreign policy is paralleled by a similar, though far less serious, split over domestic policy which in part flows from it. In theory, all Republicans believe in decreased government spending, lower taxes, a balanced budget, and a stable dollar. Unlike the Democrats, they do not merely give these policies lip service; they are convinced that government spending can lead only to runaway inflation, bankruptcy, and socialism.

On the other hand, faced with the cold fact that maintaining the nation’s international commitments is costly, Republican internationalists, by and large, are willing to put off balancing the budget for some years to come. They are anxious to cut taxes, but they do not favor cutting them sharply right away. Republican isolationists take a contrary view, and, in fact, the budget could be balanced immediately and taxes cut drastically if the foreign-aid program was abandoned and if defense spending was concentrated on the Strategic Air Command.

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In general, there are two reasons why the Democrats are so sanguine of victory and a quick return to power. The first lies in their analysis of why Mr. Eisenhower was elected; the second, in their belief that his party is incapable of governing.

If Mr. Eisenhower, the candidate, was not merely a hero surrounded by the glamor of war and victory, but a supra-political figure for whom millions of Democrats felt they could safely vote, Mr. Eisenhower, the President, they say, is not. There just isn’t any such thing as a supra-political President. As President, Mr. Eisenhower also is the leader of the Republican party. As a Republican President, he must carry out Republican policies or else tear his party apart.

The Democrats are fully aware that, even with the recent slump in his popularity, Mr. Eisenhower could probably be reelected tomorrow—and by just as big a majority. That, they say, is largely because he still hasn’t done anything to make anyone mad. He hasn’t done anything—period. The President has postponed all the important decisions by the simple, painless process of appointing committees and commissions to conduct studies and issue reports.

Already, argue the Democrats, although nobody is mad at the President (except the extreme right wing, who expected him to carry out his campaign promises instantly), there is a growing impatience with him. The glamor is wearing off; the halo is growing dim. The President cannot postpone his decisions much longer, for there is a law of diminishing returns in politics, too. And, once he does start making decisions, he inevitably will start making enemies as well. The Democrats who broke away from the coalition to vote for him will return, for the decisions will be Republican decisions.

The President cannot possibly carry out his campaign promises, the Democrats maintain, because they were unrealistic to begin with. As a candidate, Mr. Eisenhower violently attacked the Truman foreign policy. As President, his first positive act was to agree to a cease-fire in Korea along the lines already laid down by the Truman administration. He talked of “rolling back the Iron Curtain” and made a great show of “unleashing the forces of Chiang Kai-shek” (which never were shackled in the first place). The Iron Curtain is just where it was when he took office and, partly because of the cease-fire and partly because of his inability to make up his mind about the Far East, the Chinese Nationalists have entered a new period of crisis. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles now is even talking about recognizing Red China under certain—highly remote—conditions; and anti-American sentiment on Formosa is rising.

As a candidate, Mr. Eisenhower promised to cut taxes and balance the budget. He was unable to deliver on either promise this year, even after paring down appropriations for the armed forces. He will cut taxes next year but, even with still more slashes in appropriations for defense, he will have a budget possibly as much as eight or nine billion dollars in the red. As the Democrats see it, he can’t possibly balance the budget without cutting the armed forces so much that his whole foreign policy collapses.

The Democrats believe, moreover, that Mr. Eisenhower made a fatal error when he decided to postpone all his big decisions until 1954. In 1953, in the exultation of victory, the Republican Congress would have given him anything he wanted, just as the Democratic Congress simply rubber-stamped every bit of suggested legislation that came from Roosevelt during the famous First One Hundred Days, they maintain; in ’54, Republicans who disagree with the administration will be far more likely to fight it. The entire House is coming up for reelection; faced with one demand from the White House and a contrary demand from the folks back home, the Republican Congressman who wants to stay in Congress will heed the latter.

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The Democrats look forward to a real Republican rhubarb, for example, when Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson proposes his new farm program. According to reports, this program will involve the gradual abandonment of fixed price supports in favor of a two-price system for several selected farm products. The Democrats don’t believe it will have a chance; the Farm Belt Republicans, they say, are sure to kill it.

Again, the Democrats doubt that Mr. Eisenhower’s plan to freeze the Social Security tax will stand much of a chance. Crusty old Daniel A. Reed, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is against it and plans to fight it all the way. He’ll get almost solid Democratic help. And if Reed wins the fight, the result will be a highly unfortunate one for a good many Republican Congressmen. At a time when the newspapers are announcing cuts in Federal income and corporate taxes, almost half the nation’s wage-earners will find themselves with less take-home pay. (In the low-income groups, the boost in the Social Security tax will more than wipe out the cut in the income tax.)

On top of this, the Democrats say, is the fact that Mr. Eisenhower had the misfortune to come into office just when the economy had reached its peak and when a period of readjustment was on the way. That wasn’t, his fault, but he’s going to reap the blame for it. (The Democrats will make certain of that.) The demand for new plants, new cars, new housing, the demand for everything is beginning to fall off. Not much, perhaps, but enough to cut out overtime here and a job there, enough to put an overextended farmer or businessman into bankruptcy, enough to make people remember 1929—and enough to change votes.

And since they believe basically in the curative powers of government spending, the Democrats also believe that, if Mr. Eisenhower follows Republican policies, he will simply aggravate the economic situation. They don’t foresee a depression, but they do foresee just enough of a slump to make a majority of the voters start clamoring for the good old days when the Democrats were running things. The Republican margins in Congress are so slim that it won’t take much of a shift of votes to give the Democrats control.

The Democrats view the upset in the 9th Congressional District of Wisconsin, where a slight decline in farm prices coupled with a few layoffs turned a historically Republican district Democratic, as the forerunner of ’54.

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The one great fear of the Democrats is the issue of Communism in government. There are some liberals who still refuse to believe that Alger Hiss was anything but a victim of hysteria, and who still consider the late Harry Dexter White a martyr to democracy. They still insist that Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley dreamed up everything they said, and they still dismiss the pumpkin papers as a fraud.

The men who sat in power in Washington during the 30’s and early 40’s know better. Once they are forced to it, they can explain what happened, they can excuse it. They can point out that, after all, Russia and the United States were allies; that if Hiss fooled Jimmy Byrnes, he managed to pull the wool over Dulles’s eyes, too; that if Franklin D. Roosevelt called Stalin “Uncle Joe,” Dwight D. Eisenhower thought Marshal Zhukov was a darned nice fellow and a first-rate drinking companion.

However, this sort of talk sounds fine in a drawing room, but not in a political campaign. And if the voters still are agitated about Communism in government next fall, the Democrats may find themselves in trouble. For in spite of Mr. Eisenhower, the Republicans can be depended upon to make Communism a major issue in 54. And this will be especially true if, as the Democrats predict, the coming session of Congress brings forth a mouse. In that event, Communism probably will be the principal Republican issue.

The Democrats recently had a foretaste of the ’54 campaign, when Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., charged that Truman promoted the late Harry Dexter White to a high government post knowing that he was a Russian spy. Whatever their public reactions, in private they were terrified, and even long-time Democratic critics of Truman, even Southerners who had sat out the ’52 campaign, rushed to his defense. They still detested Truman, but they realized that if the Republican party could succeed in pinning the label of Communism on the Democratic party, it might stay in power for a generation. The Southerners, particularly, remembered what had happened after the Civil War, when the GOP succeeded in labeling the Democratic party the party of the “Copperheads.” Later, when Adlai Stevenson addressed a joint session of the Georgia legislature in Atlanta, he drew his biggest applause from the crowd of ten thousand who had gathered to listen to him when he accused the Republicans of waving “the Red shirt” as they once had waved “the bloody shirt.”

By and large, the Democrats feel a little easier about the White case now—and about the whole issue of Communism. For, although Brownell’s charge was a nine-day wonder in the newspapers, the Democrats are now convinced that it had very little impact on the country. After the newspaper furor had died, the Democratic Senatorial campaign committee checked with 43 Democratic members of Congress; 20 of them had received no mail at all about White, the others had received only four or five letters each. From this some of the Democrats have concluded that, if the Republicans make Communism a major issue, they will be flogging a very sick horse.

These Democrats even profess to believe that Brownell’s charge helped rather than hurt the Democratic party, not only because it further solidified the party but also because it brought out into the open the conflict between the President and the McCarthy wing of the GOP. Joe McCarthy’s attack on the administration’s foreign policy, as well as the letter-writing and telegram campaign that he inspired, were precisely what the Democratic National Committee would have ordered had it been able to.

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However, the prevailing view in the Democratic party is that whether the Republicans can win votes by raising the issue of Communism will depend on what other issues there are. If the nation is continuing to enjoy as high a level of prosperity come November as today, and if everything is going well abroad, the issue of Communism can be a powerful one on the Republican side, most Democrats agree. On the other hand, if November finds the nation growing restive about the high cost of living, falling farm prices, slackening employment, and the failure of the Eisenhower administration to carry out its campaign promises, Communism will be ignored.

The Democrats believe the Republicans will find it impossible to convince a cattleman on the verge of bankruptcy that Harry Dexter White is a bigger menace to him than Ezra Taft Benson.

They believe it because they believe that in a time when things are going wrong Americans don’t vote for anything, they vote against. They voted against corruption and Communism last time but, if they want to vote against next time, it must be against what is going wrong at the moment, not against what went wrong ten years ago. The Democrats, being Democrats, are sure the Republicans can be depended upon to make the right things go wrong.

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