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THE MEDICARE MESS, PART 1: Barack Obama, 'The Truman Strategy' and the Politics of Health Care in 2012

Editor's note: This is the first of a five part series looking at Medicare by Fox News contributor James P. Pinkerton.

As he seeks re-election in 2012, President Obama is focusing his attacks on the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, mostly ignoring those GOP candidates who are actually seeking the presidential nomination to run against him. To put it plainly, Obama is judging that the Tea Party-ized House makes a better target than the eventual GOP nominee. In making this political calculation, Obama is replaying the calculation made by an earlier Democratic President, Harry Truman, who built his 1948 election campaign by attacking, not the Republican candidate, but the Republican-controlled 80th Congress.

Truman’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, on July 15, 1948, sounded a fierce broadside against the opposition. Displaying his characteristic energy, Truman declared, “I will win this election and make these Republicans like it--don’t you forget that!” He then continued, “They are wrong and we are right, and I will prove it to you.” This was pure partisan firepower, but Truman was careful where he aimed it--toward GOP-controlled Capitol Hill.

The Republican presidential nominee in 1948 was New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, and Dewey, Truman understood, was not a good target. The New Yorker had emerged as a national hero for his racket-busting efforts as Manhattan District Attorney in the previous decade; as a prosecutor, he had cut a Rudy Giuliani-ish figure, aiming at both white collar crooks and mobsters. Dewey had convicted Richard Whitney, head of the New York Stock Exchange, on embezzlement charges, and he had also nailed Lucky Luciano, the high-profile mafioso. And as the two-term governor of New York, he had kept to a moderate, middle-hugging course. In other words, Dewey was a strong opponent to Truman in a general election; indeed, the Gallup Poll consistently showed the New York governor to be ahead in the race.

Realizing that he was an underdog, Truman chose a different target: the Republicans who controlled Congress. Congressional GOPers, in contrast to the refined and cautious Dewey, were generally rowdier and more strongly ideological; the freshmen-heavy Republican cadre was determined to repeal, as soon as possible, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s liberal New Deal agenda, which Truman had inherited upon FDR’s death in 1945.

In the 1946 midterm elections, Republicans had recaptured both chambers of Congress--a victory gained through a simple slogan: “Had enough?” Those two words distilled the popular feeling that the Democrats, having completely dominated Washington since the early 30s, had been in power for too long. And so Republicans won in a midterm landslide. But then came the hard part: What, exactly, did “had enough?” mean to the voters? Did it mean that the voters now viewed the New Deal as a mistake? Did it mean that they wanted to go back to the “good old days” of, say, Calvin Coolidge? Or did they merely want to see liberalism somewhat moderated? Or were they happy enough with the New Deal, but angry at the abuses of certain incumbents? In their electing a GOP Congress in ’46, did voters want to shake things up a lot--or just a little?

Interpreting an electoral mandate is always tricky--and the Republicans guessed wrong. They chose to believe that they had a popular mandate to dismantle the New Deal and the welfare state, and they set out to do so within the next two years. And the GOP won some big victories; in 1947, for example, Republicans passed the Taft-Hartley Act over Truman’s veto. That legislation, restricting the power of labor unions, is still on the books today.

But unions were big and powerful back then, and they vowed revenge against the Republicans. So Truman was able to mobilize what was then called the “labor movement,” as well as other rising groups, such as African-Americans, into a powerful electoral force.

A key issue of the day, interestingly enough, was national health insurance. Ever since the enactment of Social Security in 1935, the liberal left had dreamed of augmenting retirement security with government-sponsored health insurance. And so Truman struck a chord when he declared in Philadelphia: “I have repeatedly asked the Congress to pass a health program. The Nation suffers from lack of medical care. That situation can be remedied any time the Congress wants to act upon it.” Truman knew, of course, that Congressional Republicans had no intention of passing a health insurance program--and so he was gambling that the country was more with him on that issue than with the GOP.

The strategy of targeting the Republican Congress worked for Truman in 1948. Not only did the 33rd president score a come-from-behind victory over the hapless Dewey on November 2, but his coattails brought huge Democratic gains in both the Senate and the House--nine Senate seats, 75 House seats--bringing Democrats back into a substantial majority.
To sum up, Truman turned the ’48 election into a referendum on the New Deal and the welfare state. Thanks to Truman’s efforts, in the minds of the voters, the choice was clear: Vote Truman and Democratic and keep the New Deal, or vote Republican and end the New Deal. Poor Thomas E. Dewey was an afterthought. And as we have seen, the New Deal not only won in 1948, but the idea of the welfare state--or, if one prefers, big government--was enshrined for many decades to come.

OK, that was then. Now to the present. In his April 13 speech at George Washington University, President Obama went after one of the leading Republicans in Congress, Rep. Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee and author of the “Path to Prosperity” plan that has become the touchstone of Congressional Republican fiscal thinking. Obama called the Ryan plan “deeply pessimistic” and wrong for America, and he proceeded to critique it in detail. In response, Ryan fired right back at the president: “Rather than building bridges, he's poisoning the wells." 

And so the battle is joined, Obama vs. Ryan and the House Republicans. Obama was employing what might be called “The Truman Strategy.” That is, ignore the Republican presidential candidate--who, of course, hasn’t been named yet--and zero in on the Republican House majority.

Will this strategy work for Obama in 2012 as it did for Truman in 1948? Does Obama have the sort of feisty Truman style that is needed to pull it off? Do the voters trust Obama as much as they did Truman? Are the Republicans of the 112th Congress as tone-deaf to the popular mood as were those of the 80th Congress? Or do today’s Republicans have it right?

The victor in 2012 will be determined by other issues, too, of course, such as the condition of the economy and the nation’s security.

But another fundamental question is whether the voters are as attached of the welfare state in the 21st century as they were in the 20th century. In particular, what do voters think about the issue of government-managed health care? That’s the question we will take up in the next installment.

James P. Pinkerton is a writer, Fox News contributor and the editor/founder of SeriousMedicineStrategy.

James P. Pinkerton is a Fox News contributor. He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He is also the editor of CureStrategy.org.