By Jean Edward Smith, the author, most recently, of F.D.R. (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 07/07/08):
From Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, the Republican Party has assiduously courted the core of the old Roosevelt coalition: poor, white, working-class voters — mostly rural, often elderly, sometimes sparsely educated and frequently fundamentalist. But in so doing, Republican presidential candidates have shortchanged a vital component of their party: the Eisenhower Republicans.
These are the affluent, well-educated, mostly white suburbanites and exurbanites who once dominated Republican politics. Fiscally conservative but socially progressive, they catapulted Wendell Willkie to the Republican nomination in 1940 and then rode to victory on the coattails of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. They believe in rule of law at home and collective security abroad, and they cringe at the mantra that Washington is the problem, not the solution.
Eisenhower has been ignored by Republican power brokers for the past 40 years. Yet with the exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eisenhower was the most successful president of the 20th century. He ended a no-win war with Korea with honor and dignity, resisted calls for preventive war with China and the Soviet Union and weaned the Republican Party from its isolationist past.
The supreme commander of Allied forces during World War II, Eisenhower believed the United States should not go to war unless the nation’s survival was at stake. “There is no alternative to peace,” he said. He refused to engage American troops in brush-fire wars for political abstractions. After Eisenhower made peace in Korea, not a single American died in combat for the rest of his presidency.
When the National Security Council recommended the use of nuclear weapons at Dien Bien Phu to rescue the beleaguered French garrison there, Eisenhower rejected the proposal. “We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than 10 years,” he said. Four years later, when China threatened force against Taiwan, the joint chiefs again recommended a nuclear response, and once again, Eisenhower rejected the idea.
On the home front, Eisenhower tamed the inflation that the Korean War aroused, slashed military spending, balanced the budget and worked easily with a Democratic Congress. Two of his appointees to the Supreme Court, Earl Warren and William Brennan, started a judicial revolution. (Eisenhower was disappointed with some of the decisions of the Warren court, but the advances that Americans experienced in civil liberty and social justice during the past 50 years are in very large measure attributable to Warren and Brennan.)
Eisenhower held a limited view of presidential power. He felt that Congress made policy and the president carried it out. He took his constitutional responsibility to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” at face value. In 1957, when a federal judge in Little Rock, Ark., ordered the desegregation of Central High School, Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the court’s order. “Sending in the troops was the hardest decision I had to make since D-Day,” Eisenhower later said, but “it was the only thing I could do.”
Eisenhower believed traditional American values encompassed change and progress. “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear from that party again,” he wrote his brother Edgar. “There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things,” he continued, but he added, “Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
He also believed that government had a positive role to play in American life. The Interstate highway program revolutionized the nation’s transportation system, and the St. Lawrence Seaway opened the Great Lakes to ocean traffic. The Defense Education Act, which broke the longstanding taboo against direct federal aid to education when Eisenhower signed it into law in 1958, has done more to change the face of American universities than any other measure since the enactment of the G.I. Bill during World War II.
Eisenhower gave the country eight years of prosperity and peace. No other 20th-century president can make that claim.
His presidency reflected the views of the moderate Republicans who once set the party’s agenda. Winning the votes of these Republicans — who on many issues differ little from this century’s Democratic mainstream — should be the first order of business for Barack Obama’s campaign.
Mr. Obama is already reaching out to evangelical Christians, a key bloc of the Reagan coalition. Reaching out more explicitly to the Eisenhower Republicans who never felt part of that coalition would be a logical next step.