“Moderation is OK, in moderation.” Ronald Reagan
As the presidential primaries roll on we here the usual debate about what gives a Republican presidential candidate “electability.” One school of thought is that a more moderate candidate gives the party its best chance of winning in a nationwide general election. Another school of thought is that a principled conservative, like Reagan, can attract more voters through the power of his obvious convictions.
If history is any guide, nominating a squishy moderate might be the wrong thing not only for the Republican Party, but for the nation as a whole.
In 1940 the R’s nominated Wendell Willkie, a left-leaning businessman who had donated money to Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign, and had been a lifelong Democrat until Roosevelt’s New Deal effectively shut down his business. He switched parties just in time to run against Roosevelt in 1940.
The winds seemed to favor the Republicans that year; they had made major gains in Congress in the midterm elections of 1938, and many voters were uncomfortable with the idea that President Roosevelt was running for an unprecedented third term.The party selected Willkie the erstwhile Democrat, and in the general election the voters chose Roosevelt, the committed liberal Democrat, over Willkie the squishy one.
It’s interesting to speculate on what would have happened if the R’s had been brave enough to nominate the most conservative candidate in the primary, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. Taft would have had no trouble distinguishing himself from FDR; he’d been a fierce opponent of the New Deal for as long as Roosevelt had been in office. Any campaign speech he might have given as the party’s nominee would have been quite consistent with what he’d been loudly and publicly saying as a Senator.
One thing is sure. If Robert Taft had ended up in the White House, the nation would have been much better off over the next several years.
Japanese Americans would certainly have been better off. Fifteen months after winning his third presidential election, Roosevelt consigned Japanese-Americans, over a hundred thousand of them, to confinement in hastily constructed prison camps. Most were American citizens. Most were forced to leave their homes so quickly that it was all they could do to lock the doors on the way out. Home burglaries and racism-inspired vandalism cost many of these Americans most or all of their possessions while they were locked up.
It safe to say that none of this would have happened if Robert Taft had been President. When Roosevelt’s idea was being debated in the nation’s capital, Taft fought against it even harder than he’d battled FDR’s ruinous New Deal programs. The order, said Taft, was the “worst civil rights violation since slavery.”
As an aside, it should be mentioned that the only other prominent political figure to take a strong stand against internment was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a decidedly right-leaning figure frequently demonized by college history professors and others on the left. In a letter to the Attorney General, Hoover said that internment was a bad idea because the great majority of Japanese-Americans were good loyal Americans, that only a handful were treasonous, and that he knew who all the traitors were and already had them in jail.
As for presidential races, one would hope that the powers that be in the Republican party would see how badly it usually turns out when they put up a middle-of-the-road bureaucrat to run against a dynamic liberal. It didn’t work with John McCain in 2008, nor with Bob Dole in 1996, nor with Gerald Ford in 1976, nor with Wendell Willke in 1940.