The Eisenhower Lesson Obama and the Democrats Need to Learn

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Dr. Bowen is the Assistant Director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida.

Historians make their living seeing the past in the present. The recent landmark election of Barack Obama has led to an outpouring of presidential comparisons. So far, the two that have become consensus link Obama to either Franklin D. Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln. Time magazine saw fit to Photoshop Obama, complete with top hat, monocle, and cigarette holder, into the famous photo of FDR driving his roadster and make it the cover image of its November 24th issue. CNN, the New York Times, and other outlets have spent a lot of time parsing Obama’s cabinet appointments and comparing him to Abraham Lincoln who, in the estimation of Doris Kearns Goodwin, recruited his toughest opponents to be his closest advisors.

Equating Obama to two of our most popular and effective presidents is all well and fine, but by doing so historians have missed some of the more troubling aspects of Obama’s election and his effect on partisan politics. A fairer comparison, at least in this regard, is with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Electioneers in both parties would be well served to look at Ike, not for his leadership style or his policies, but for the impact of candidate-centered politics on the Republican Party during his time in office.

Eisenhower and Obama have a surprising number of similarities. Both men were relative newcomers who were criticized for their lack of political experience and vague agendas. They both capitalized on their virtual celebrity status to win hard-fought nomination contests and garner endorsements from prominent members of the other party. On Election Day, they both won states that, one year prior, were deemed as solid for their opponents. Eisenhower, for example, was the first Republican to win Florida and Texas since 1928 and Obama became the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964. Their many supporters in the press initially trumpeted the victories of both men as a sign of a looming sea change in American politics. Finally, both candidates promised a bi-partisan consensus to lead America out of a turbulent period of war and declining civil liberties amidst foreign threats.

While Obama has at least four years to live up to his expectations, Democrats hoping to ride his coattails to victory should study the lessons of the 1950s and be wary. Eisenhower’s political team, composed primarily of members of New York Governor Thomas Dewey’s old organization, rebranded the GOP in Ike’s image. The leaders of the non-partisan Citizens for Eisenhower group (CFE), a highly orchestrated campaign entity that in 1952 targeted traditionally Democratic districts, contended that the Republican Party remained hopelessly linked with the Great Depression and pre-World War II isolationism, two electorally poisonous connections. Only by embracing Eisenhower’s popularity and rebuilding the party as a vehicle to advance Eisenhower and his policies, the CFE leaders claimed, would the GOP remain the majority party.

Republican officials, who had been out of power for the past twenty years, went along with their CFE associates. From 1953 through the midterm elections of 1954, the GOP recast itself in Eisenhower’s image. Republican National Chairman Leonard Hall, a former New York congressman, judged appointees on loyalty to the Eisenhower administration, not the RNC. A number of West Wing staffers, led by Chief of Staff Sherman Adams, coordinated the 1954 Congressional campaigns with equal input from both the CFE and the RNC. Their logic, as dictated by Charles Willis, a political operative working under Adams, was that “the strongest political factor in American politics is the personal popularity of the President; and that this popularity is found not only in the rank and file of the Republican Party but is also represented in that large group of independents and non-organization Republicans throughout the country which made up the Citizens for Eisenhower-Nixon." [1] At one point, in early 1953, a campaign memo from the CFE declared that “Every people in every age has [sic] required its [sic] Moses.” [2] Eisenhower was the chosen one for the 1950s, supposedly, and the Republican leadership organized accordingly.

The White House and the RNC made loyalty to Eisenhower, regardless of party affiliation, the dominant factor in candidate selection and fund-raising. Congressman Richard Simpson, chair of the Republican National Congressional Committee for the 1954 election cycle, submitted an ambitious candidate selection proposal to the White House, only to be questioned by White House staff member Thomas Stevens as to the role of the “Independent groups.”[3] In May 1954, Eisenhower, Hall, and Attorney General Herbert Brownell signed off on a plan to run a slate of pro-Eisenhower, independent candidates because, in their opinion, the Republican identity was a major obstacle to maintaining friendly congressional majorities. Though this proposal never came to fruition, it was completely in line with the prevailing notion of the day. [4]

Candidate-centered non-partisanship was a novel and untested approach in the 1950s and, ultimately, one that failed miserably. Giving financial and organizational support to those outside of the party alienated committed Republicans. Early in the election cycle Spyros Skouras, President of 20th Century Fox and a top GOP fundraiser, reported that party donors were regularly withholding donations to protest the new strategy. [5] Vice-President Richard Nixon, on the trail for the congressional candidates, reported that the policy of “kicking Republican organization people in the face” had weakened morale to the point that many state and local organizations were limiting their get out the vote efforts. [6] Targeting those outside of the regular organization, and believing that Republicans would support their party regardless of their treatment, proved spurious. The candidate-centered strategy, in Nixon’s estimation, had actually damaged the GOP and its voter mobilization campaign.

Nixon’s fears proved prescient at the polls. In fall 1953, the Republicans lost two special House elections in traditionally safe GOP districts. In 1954 they lost one seat in the Senate, giving the Democrats control, and saw their ten seat House majority turn into a twenty-nine seat deficit. Eisenhower and his associates, despite the warnings of Nixon, Skouras, and others, blamed these losses on the continued identification of the GOP as a vehicle for conservatism. In their opinion, their strategy was a sound one, but they had not worked hard enough to rebrand the party. Over the next six years they stepped up their efforts to create a “Modern Republicanism” around Eisenhower’s popularity and moderate policies, but failed to regain control of either chamber in 1956 or 1958.

Though Obama has yet to occupy the Oval Office, the potential to lean on the president-elect’s image and popularity should seem very tempting to Democratic leaders. Doing so, however, could ultimately weaken the party organization as it did for the Republicans in the 1950s. The December 2nd run-off senatorial election in Georgia shows that, without Obama leading the ticket, down-ballot races are much more difficult. Incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss, who won the initial election by three points, handily defeated challenger Jim Martin by fourteen points. An eleven point swing in one month, without any intervening crisis or major policy shift, could be a sign of things to come. Democrats would be well served to build their party without over-utilizing the Obama brand or face a reversal of fortune in future elections.

[1] Charles Willis, Memo to Sherman Adams, 12 May 1953. Copy in Folder (Political Affairs (1)), Box 45, Confidential File, Presidential Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Ks.

[2] Memorandum, “An Analysis of the 1934 Congressional Elections,” undated. Copy in Folder (Campaign 1954 (2)), Box 6, Papers of the RNC Chairman (Leonard Hall), Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Ks.

[3] Thomas Stephens, Letter to Richard Simpson, 22 June 1953. Copy in Folder (OF 138-A-4 -- Congressional Elections and Voting 1952, 1953, 1954), Box 699, Official File, Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Ks. Presidential Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Ks.

[4] Charles Willis, Memo to Sherman Adams, 13 May 1954. Copy in Folder (OF-138 (1)), Box 689, Official File, Presidential Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Ks.

[5] Spyros Skouras, Letter to Dwight D. Eisenhower, 6 July 1954. Copy in Folder (OF-138 (1)), Box 689, Official File, Presidential Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Ks.

[6] Richard Nixon, Memo to Sherman Adams, 7 October 1954. Copy in Folder (Congress (2)), Box 18, Confidential File, Presidential Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Ks.

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John Olerud - 2/2/2009

Carter seems like the logical comparison. President Carter was a relative newcomer who came out of obscurity to win the White House after a two-term Republican administration.

Randll Reese Besch - 1/6/2009

One I find that a historian was the one to see it in the first place.

R.R. Hamilton - 1/6/2009

I agree with Mr. Dantes that this is a good article with excellent points. I disagree that "Historians should focus more on 'seeing the past in the present' and leave predictions up to media pundits and social scientists". I think the standard of quality for historians is to be able to "see the past in the future".

Edmond Dantes - 1/5/2009

You make some excellent points. I believe that many historians are far too eager to compare Obama with Lincoln and FDR. No one knows exactly how he will lead or what his administration will accomplish. Historians should focus more on "seeing the past in the present" and leave predictions up to media pundits and social scientists.