The Truman Show

by Jonathan Chait | August 18, 2011

A couple days ago, Norman Ornstein wrote a piece for TNR suggesting that Harry Truman's 1948 campaign offers a historic parallel for President Obama. Truman had seen Republicans sweep to power in the midterm elections two years before, and proceed to advocate a radical anti-government ideology that alienated large swaths of the electorate, allowing Truman to counterpose himself against them. Conservative pundit Michael Barone writes a column objecting to the parallel:

There are in fact major differences between Truman’s standing in 1947–48 and Obama’s standing today. Contrary to Truman’s “do-nothing” characterization of the Republican 80th Congress, it in fact did a lot. It repealed wartime wage and price controls, cut taxes deeply, and passed the Taft-Hartley Act, limiting the powers of labor unions.
None of those actions was reversed by the Democratic Congress elected with Truman in 1948. Many congressional Democrats in those days were anti–New Deal conservatives. Truman won many votes from Democrats still upset about the Civil War. Few such votes will be available to Obama or congressional Democrats in 2012.
In addition, Truman’s victory was brought about by two “F factors” — the farm vote and foreign policy — the first of which scarcely exists today and the second of which seems unlikely to benefit Obama in the same way.

Okay, the first part of Barone's argument consists of insisting that the 80th Congress actually accomplished a lot, unlike the current Congress. In other words, the current Congress is worse than the Congress Truman ran against. It's hard to understand why this point argues against the possibility of using the current Congress as a foil.

The rest of Barone's column represents a failure to grasp the concept of analogy. Barone details differences between Truman and Obama -- Truman had a different voting coalition than Obama, and he benefited from Republican threats to agriculture subsidies:

Today only 2 to 3 percent of Americans live on farms. Farm prices currently are running far ahead of subsidy prices. Obama is not going to be reelected by the farm vote.

True! But the point of Ornstein's analogy was not that Obama would benefit from literally the same voters and literally the same issues as Truman did. Obama will point to different popular programs threatened by the GOP Congress -- Medicare, not farm subsidies. He will have a different voting coalition than Truman -- far fewer Southern whites, far more minorities and college-educated voters.

Indeed, most of Truman's 1948 voting base is now, in fact, dead. I don't really think Ornstein was attempting to argue that Obama would literally do the exact same thing as Truman. I think he was arguing that Obama would do the modern equivalent. That's generally what a historical analogy is used for.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/93854/the-truman-show