The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party

The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party

The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party

The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party

Synopsis

Between 1944 and 1953, a power struggle emerged between New York governor Thomas Dewey and U.S. senator Robert Taft of Ohio that threatened to split the Republican Party. In The Roots of Modern Conservatism, Michael Bowen reveals how this two-man battle for control of the GOP--and the Republican presidential nomination--escalated into a divide of ideology that ultimately determined the party's political identity.

Initially, Bowen argues, the separate Dewey and Taft factions endorsed fairly traditional Republican policies. However, as their conflict deepened, the normally mundane issues of political factions, such as patronage and fund-raising, were overshadowed by the question of what "true" Republicanism meant. Taft emerged as the more conservative of the two leaders, while Dewey viewed Taft's policies as outdated. Eventually, conservatives within the GOP organized against Dewey's leadership and, emboldened by the election of Dwight Eisenhower, transformed the party into a vehicle for the Right. Bowen reveals how this decade-long battle led to an outpouring of conservative sentiment that had been building since World War II, setting the stage for the ascendancy of Barry Goldwater and the modern conservative movement in the 1960s.

Excerpt

On a cold, rainy night in April 1952, Robert Taft addressed a near-capacity crowd of thousands at Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque. Though his reputation for downright dull public appearances preceded him, he received an enthusiastic welcome. Over the previous five months Taft had actively sought the Republican presidential nomination, and here, in the heavily unionized Steel City, his talking points targeted the traditional midwestern values of the audience. After briefly acknowledging the state and local politicians who hoped to capitalize on the evening’s publicity in their own campaigns, Taft launched into his list of platform promises. “We offer the American workman a return to honesty and integrity in Washington,” he said, “a reduction in his tax burdens, a stimulation of the process of improved production to increase his income and standard of living, a foreign policy which will protect his security without drafting his boys for military service and limit[ing] his opportunity.” His agenda, drawn from policies he advocated during his thirteen distinguished years as senator from Ohio, promised to safeguard the middle and working classes through economic growth and national security while protecting the concerns of businessmen and industrialists. The Pittsburgh audience, which included both management and labor, gave him a rousing reception.

In late 1951, when the election cycle began in earnest, many pundits and prognosticators believed Taft the front-runner. As the son of former president and Supreme Court chief justice William Howard Taft, he certainly had the pedigree for the Oval Office. Educated at the prestigious Taft school, Yale, and finally Harvard Law School, Robert Taft had entered public service immediately after graduation, joining Herbert Hoover’s World War I–era Food Administration. Election to the Ohio state legislature quickly followed, and in 1938 he won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Re-

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