Dwight Eisenhower and the new deal: the politics of preemption.

Author:Harris, Douglas B.

In The Politics That Presidents Make, Stephen Skowronek argues that presidents should be compared as a result of similarities in their historical/political circumstances rather than their proximate time in history. Specifically, Skowronek places presidents into a typology in which both the strength of the existing political regime (established by a previous president) and the affiliation of the president with or the opposition of the president to the existing regime arc considered. This typology produces four types of presidential politics: the politics of reconstruction, the politics of articulation, the politics of disjunction, and the politics of preemption.(1) Presidents who are opposed to vulnerable existing regimes have an opportunity to change political discourse and reconstruct American politics. Reconstructive presidents have the most impact on American politics. Presidents who are affiliated with resilient regimes practice the politics of articulation in which they hope to stoke the fires of the reconstructed rhetoric and coalitions with which they are affiliated. Presidents affiliated with vulnerable regimes are disjunctive presidents. Constrained by their affiliation with existing coalitions and programs which are being questioned and losing their relevance in the broader political system, disjunctive presidents attempt to keep this faltering regime together. Finally, presidents practicing the politics of preemption are opposed to resilient regimes, but in the difficult position of searching for reconstructive opportunities where reconstruction is neither warranted by mandate nor sufficiently supported by segments of society.

Using a historical approach, Skowronek explains the ways in which a number of presidents fit into the first three categories, but he gives little attention to the politics of preemption. This relative neglect of preemptive presidents is unfortunate in that, being "opposition leaders in resilient regimes," the politics of preemption represents "the most curious of all leadership situations,"(2) How do opposition leaders ascend to the presidency if the regime to which they are opposed is still strong? And, what are the opportunities and limitations of presidents in this situation? Moreover, this neglect of the politics of preemption is puzzling in that Skowronek's conclusions suggest that the future of presidential politics will be dominated by preemptive presidents.(3)

Certainly the politics of preemption deserves more attention than it has received. I selected Dwight Eisenhower for several reasons. First, there is some controversy over the relationship of Eisenhower to the New Deal regime established by Franklin Roosevelt. And with a few notable exceptions, the scholarship has ignored Eisenhower's motives in regard to the New Deal as well as his eventual impact on the New Deal regime.(4) Second, Skowronek is ambiguous about where Eisenhower fits in political time. Although he suggests that "Eisenhower is, perhaps, the most remarkable of the preemptive leaders," Skowronek refuses to include Eisenhower among the ranks of preemptive presidents. He opts instead to put Eisenhower with Presidents Coolidge and Cleveland as "hard cases."(5) I argue that the Eisenhower case is not hard at all. On the contrary, Eisenhower is the most successful of the preemptive presidents. And third, as a result of his atypical success as a preemptive leader, the Eisenhower case may provide a blueprint for President Clinton and the perpetual string of preemptive presidents that Skowronek suggests will succeed him.

Eisenhower and the New Deal: A President in Political Time

Many scholars have suggested that the Eisenhower presidency made the New Deal legitimate in American politics.(6) Prior to Eisenhower, the Republican party, for the most part, stood in opposition to New Deal policies. V. O. Key, Jr. attributes the acceptance of the New Deal in the Republican party to the Eisenhower presidency. After Eisenhower, the Republican party "could chip away at New Deal measures ... [and] it could refuse to carry those policies further; but it could not re-open settled questions."(7)

The acceptance of New Deal policies by Eisenhower Republicans was, more than likely, a result of the strength of the New Deal regime. Indeed, the New Deal had proven itself to the majority of America and made Franklin Roosevelt a national hero while the Old Guard Republicans were collectively saddled with the image of Herbert Hoover's depression. Prior to the Eisenhower presidency, "the Democratic party was widely perceived ... as the party of prosperity and the Republican Party as the party of depression."(8) Campbell et al. credit "the willingness of the Eisenhower administration to embrace most of the reforms of the New Deal" with lessening the Democratic advantage on economic issues from 1952 to 1956.(9)

An examination of Eisenhower's personal correspondence supports the idea that his acceptance of the New Deal was primarily based on political considerations. When his brother Edgar complained that he was being too liberal, President Eisenhower responded: "Should any political party attempt to abolish social security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history."(10) Similarly, when conservatives complained that President Eisenhower "had abandoned the Republican commitment to fiscal responsibility," he countered that the social programs which were the subject of the conservatives' wrath had "now become accepted in our civilization."(11)

These political considerations reflected Eisenhower's political pragmatism. He reportedly based important components of his 1952 campaign, including his promise to go to Korea, on the results of public opinion polls commissioned by his campaign.(12) Eisenhower's practicality is also reflected in a letter he wrote to a Republican politician in Massachusetts who suggested that he had lost local campaigns due to his steadfast Republicanism: "If it is true that your lack of success as a candidate for public office was due to the manner in which you answered some questions, would it advance the course of human freedom if I were to emulate you in that respect?"(13) Such pragmatism fit into Eisenhower's broader belief system in which reason and compromise were essential not only to leadership but to democracy more generally. As he wrote: "Some of the intellectuals (and particularly some of the pseudo-intellectuals) ... are prone to forget that leadership in a democracy consists of making progress by compromise."(14)


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