The Domestic Truman Doctrine: Fight Like Hell For What Is Right

As we brace for the lame-duck legislative section, which will feature wounded Democrats and wound up Republicans, I want to note a couple of things coming from the mind of the excellent columnist for The New York Times, Frank Rich.

Last week he attempted to put some fizzle back in fast fizzling Democrats, including president Obama, who sometimes sound like they are succumbing to the idea that Democratic ideas aren’t worth a vigorous defense:

In the 1946 midterms, the unpopular and error-prone rookie president Harry Truman, buffeted by a different set of economic dislocations, watched his party lose both chambers of Congress (including 54 seats in the House) to a G.O.P. that then moved steadily to the right in its determination to cut government spending and rip down the New Deal safety net. Two years after this Democratic wipeout, despite a hostile press and a grievously divided party, Truman roared back, in part by daring the Republican Congress to enact its reactionary plans. He won against all odds, as David McCullough writes in “Truman,” because “there was something in the American character that responded to a fighter.”

Well, maybe there was.  And maybe there still is.  In any case, this week Rich pointed out the opponent in today’s fight: Republicans who vow “to fight to the end” to award the richest of the rich huge windfalls through extending the Bush tax cuts.

Mr. Rich says that Americans tend to like a lot of rich folks because we “admire and often idolize success.”  We particularly like those who create a lot of good-paying jobs.

But the liberal columnist says that “the wealthy Americans we should worry about” are “those who take far more from America than they give back” and “are all but certain to cash in on the Nov. 2 results”:

The Americans I’m talking about are not just those shadowy anonymous corporate campaign contributors who flooded this campaign. No less triumphant were those individuals at the apex of the economic pyramid — the superrich who have gotten spectacularly richer over the last four decades while their fellow citizens either treaded water or lost ground. The top 1 percent of American earners took in 23.5 percent of the nation’s pretax income in 2007 — up from less than 9 percent in 1976. During the boom years of 2002 to 2007, that top 1 percent’s pretax income increased an extraordinary 10 percent every year. But the boom proved an exclusive affair: in that same period, the median income for non-elderly American households went down and the poverty rate rose.

And it’s not that Democrats are innocent of all charges for this state of affairs:

How can hedge-fund managers who are pulling down billions sometimes pay a lower tax rate than do their secretaries?” ask the political scientists Jacob S. Hacker (of Yale) and Paul Pierson (University of California, Berkeley) in their deservedly lauded new book, “Winner-Take-All Politics”…

The authors’ answer to that question and others amounts to a devastating indictment of both parties…

America’s ever-widening income inequality was not an inevitable by-product of the modern megacorporation, or of globalization, or of the advent of the new tech-driven economy, or of a growing education gap…Inequality is instead the result of specific policies, including tax policies, championed by Washington Democrats and Republicans alike as they conducted a bidding war for high-rolling donors in election after election.

As Hacker and Pierson point out in their book, that bidding war began during the Carter administration, which is when Democrats first yielded to a new and powerful coalition of big-money interests that “launched a diversified attack,” including influencing public opinion through “orchestrating a campaign of op-ed pieces and magazine articles,” “grassroots mobilization,” and the targeting of “moderate Democrats,” many of whom represented “suburban districts that had traditionally been Republican.”

Sound familiar Tea Party fans?

Some have argued that Truman’s “comeback” after the devastating 1946 midterms had more to do with “rapid growth” in the economy leading up to the 1948 election than with Truman’s adversarial stance against the Do-Nothing Congress of his day.

Whatever the truth is, it couldn’t hurt President Obama and his fellow Democrats to channel the give ’em hell spirit of a fighting Harry Truman, as they finish legislative business this year and begin anew the next. 

And then hope like hell the economy catches fire.



  1. Obama once stated in an interview with Diane Sawyer that he’d rather be “a good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” If he makes the wrong choice of extending tax cuts to the rich, and then loses in 2012, history will find him mediocre regardless of whether he is a one or two-term president. As a supporter I would hate to see him cave to the Republicans only to fall to the wayside with his only legacy having been the first president of African descent. He has some historic achievements to hold on to which in my view are legacy enough if he’s still willing to stand and fight for them.


    • Gaskinsh,

      Well said. I’d rather see him go down to defeat in 2012 by fighting for the right things and losing than do the wrong things in a vain attempt to appease the unappeasable.

      That doesn’t mean he should never compromise, but on such bedrock principles as represented by the fight over the top 2% and their tax cuts, I see a path to victory that doesn’t involve giving in. Just put a bill in the hopper that has a temporary extension of tax cuts for all but the top 2% and then vote on it. Force Repubicans (and those conservative Democrats) to vote for or against it. Then let them all defend their votes.

      Democratic leaders don’t seem to want to do that because it means playing hardball with Republicans and risking defeat. But sometimes risking defeat by defending your ground is the only principled thing to do.



  2. ansonburlingame

     /  November 16, 2010

    To both,

    Go a little deeper into Truman’s controversial economic decisions in the ’46-’48 time frame that ran in direct opposition to his Dem party. It smacks clearly of today’s arguments.

    Some wanted to sustain WWII like government spending by the federal government despite monumental debt and deficits. Only the government can return the country to sound financial footing was their argument.

    Truman did exactly the opposite and cut the hell out of government spending. Two years later he won a big election victory. My, how soon we forget it seems. Truman gave his own economists and party “hell” and resolved a huge economic crisis in those years. And later on he fired the most popular and victorious Army general when that general demanded the use of nuclear weapons in Korea to “win”.

    Give’em hell Harry was very ecumenical in dispersing lot’s of “hell” to anyone that countered his views of doing what he thought was the next right thing. And as I read history he could have given a fat damn about the politics of such choices.

    Now check the most recent DEMOCRAT (two of them) written Op-ed in the NYT calling for Obama to remove himself NOW from a relection bid in 2012. That would remove politics from his decisions and let him focus on the next right thing, like listening to the Debt Commission.

    Would that be an act of cowardice or courage on his part?



    • Anson,

      Perhaps you need to re-read your Truman history. You couldn’t be more wrong about him. Truman proposed all kinds of what you would call left-wing programs both before 1946 election losses and after his victory in 1948. He did get a lot of opposition from conservatives, both in his party and out. But to say he was fighting the Democratic Party is completely wrong. He was fighting conservatism for the most part, and was offering up a very liberal agenda. And he didn’t shy away from it, which is my point. He successfully used Republican reactionary legislation to beat them over the heads in front of the public.

      As for the two “DEMOCRATS” you mention, if you are referring to Douglas Schoen and Patrick Caddell, you are out of your mind. If those two guys are Democrats, then I am Bill Gates. They are “Fox Democrats,” which means they are labeled as Democrats so Fox can appear fair and balanced. It’s a joke what they wrote in the Washington Post. Hell, both of them will speak at a David Horowitz event, which NO Democrat would ever do. Horowitz is a first-class Obama-hater. Here is a list of the guests at Horowitz’ “Restoration Weekend” and you tell me how Schoen and Caddell could possibly be counted as Democrats:

      Newt Gingrich, David Horowitz, Liz Cheney, Ann Coulter, Andrew Klavan, Robert Spencer, Frank Gaffney, Monica Crowley, John Yoo, Marc Thiessen, Michael Barone, Ralph Peters, Caroline Glick, Pastor John Hagee, Rob Pollock, Fred Barnes, Senator Jeff Sessions, Congressmen Ed Royce and Steven King, Emmett Tyrrell, Bill Gertz, Doug Schoen, Ron Radosh, Steven Moore, Arizona State Senators Russell Pearce and Thayer Verschoor, Mark Krikorian, S.E. Cupp, Lee Smith, General Paul Vallely, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Fred Barnes and Pat Caddell.

      What a joke and it just demonstrates that the Washington Post is going down hill fast, as it appears to be trying to become the Fox “News” of newspapers.

      And, Anson, you really do need to expand your research budget.



      • Duane,

        Facts are always a bummer for “fiscal conservatives.” Chuck Spinney, a retired Pentagon budget analysis officer, breaks down the ugly realities of supply-side voodoo economics via debt burden change in GFD% of GDP and debt burden average annual change beginning with the Truman administration.

        Spinney: “Obama inherited a federal deficit that was spinning out of control (mostly because of decreased tax take and increased expenditures for automatic stabilizers, e.g. unemployment insurance), and pressure is growing to cut Social Security (perhaps the most efficiently run program in government), while placing Defense (one of the most inefficiently run programs) off limits. These political pressures are not new and in fact have been building up for years. So, as a first cut into a complex issue, perhaps it is time for the angry masses to ask which political party put them into the fiscal straigt jacket that is setting them up for this horrible choice?

        A: Democrats?
        B: Moderate Republicans?
        C: Right Wing Republicans?

        You can find the answer via Spinney’s chart here:



        • Juan,

          Thanks much for that link. I have posted it. I just wonder, with so many things, how people who are raging against the machine fail to understand that one party is trying to do something about their complaints and the other is trying to maintain fealty to a bankrupted political philosophy.



  3. ansonburlingame

     /  November 17, 2010


    So you obviously believe that Obama should stick to his Democrat agenda as evidenced over the last two years and play some “give’em hell” approaches to getting out of our current mess, right. And in doing so he should keep his eye closely atuned the the emering and already in progress 2012 campaign.

    I wonder what Hillary might do if he chooses that course? AND I stick by my understanding of “Truman history” that the BIG debate in 1946.47 was Keynesian priming of the federal pump or cutting federal spending drastically for WWII levels. Truman chose the latter against the ideas of all the BIG Dem spenders at the time!!

    Now do we at least agree that he DID fire MacAuthur for the nuclear weapons issue in Korea? Wonder what the world would look like today had Mac prevailed in that argument?



    • Anson,

      I can’t confirm any counterfactuals about what the world would look like, and I expect any reader who has doubts about your Truman history to look for themselves. Apparently, I can’t confuse you with the facts.



  4. ansonburlingame

     /  November 18, 2010

    To both Juan and Duane,

    I am once again leaving town for a couple of weeks and will not be engaged to any extent herein for a while. But let me leave you two with a simple observation and question.

    As I understand our economic history (and may be wrong in such understanding) Truman, Kennedy, Reagan and Bush II ALL lowered taxes to regain economic footing during “downturns”. In doing so federal revenues all UP following their decisions. Forget how they spent the increased revenue, just did it, federal revenues, go up or down.

    Now name one administration in the last 60 years that during a time of economic stress in our country increased federal revenues through additional taxation AND achieved increased economic growth at the same time??

    Please don’t give me the Gene Lyon’s answer that federal revenues ALWAYS go up over time, at least in the last 60 years.



  5. ansonburlingame

     /  November 18, 2010

    PS: I should have said above, “lowered taxes and/or reduced federal spending” to include the Truman years.



%d bloggers like this: