Before there was Rand Paul, there was Robert Taft: a prominent Republican senator who spoke out against excessive federal spending, a growing welfare state, military adventurism overseas, and the erosion of civil liberties at home.
Unlike Paul, Taft was the son of a president. But the younger Taft, despite thrice seeking the GOP presidential nomination, made his most indelible mark as a lawmaker. And while he is best known for serving in a “Do Nothing Congress,” Taft’s accomplishments endured longer than many of his successors’.
There were three conservative Congresses in the 20th century that made a serious attempt at cutting federal spending: the Republican majority Harry Truman campaigned against in 1947-48; the bipartisan conservative majority that came in with Ronald Reagan in 1981-82; and the Newt Gingrich “revolution” of 1995-96.
The oldest of the three is the most forgotten, for obvious reasons—it was the only one that resulted in the Republicans losing control of Congress in the next election. Republicans held the Senate in 1982, even if they lost enough seats in the House to restore the liberal working majority. The GOP retained both houses in 1996, even as Bill Clinton cruised to a second term.
But Truman’s jeremiads against congressional Republicans succeeded not only in getting himself reelected but in helping Democrats to recapture Congress. Consequently, those defenestrated Republicans have been disappeared down the memory hole.
It is too bad, for if we judge the 80th Congress by higher standards than ballot box outcomes two years hence, it culminated in the most successful attempts to re-limit the federal government since Calvin Coolidge was president. And while Taft was not yet Senate majority leader—that honor belonged to Wallace H. White—he was the ideological leader of congressional conservatives.
This Congress helped cut government spending from its dizzying Word War II highs and reverse the attendant militarization of the U.S. economy. In 1948, federal expenditures dipped below 12 percent of GDP for the last time in American history.
Truman’s plan for a national health care program modeled after the British National Health Service—a proposal to the left of Obamacare—went nowhere. Instead congressional Republicans cut taxes, removed price controls, blocked a larger federal role in middle-class housing and terminated Eleanor Roosevelt’s experiment with publicly funded daycare.
One of the most lasting achievements of that Congress bore Taft’s name: the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the Wagner Act. It outlawed the closed shop and curbed the power of the big labor unions, sparing the country from vast national strikes and a more left-wing political culture. Truman vetoed Taft-Hartley, but Taft—who had summoned his considerable legislative skills to get the bill passed in the first place—persuaded his colleagues to override the veto.
Taft did support the National Housing Act, which constructed more than 800,000 units of low-income housing, just as his general opposition to the New Deal hadn’t been absolute. He reluctantly backed the Marshall Plan but tried to cut its funding. Despite being both anti-Nazi and anti-Communist, Taft always worried that foreign entanglements were an excuse to grow government domestically.
Despite the defeat of the Do Nothing Congress in the 1948 elections, Taft continued to rise up the ranks, earning recognition as “Mr. Republican.” The Ohio senator warned against the “tendency to interfere in the affairs of other nations, to assume that we are a kind of demigod and Santa Claus to solve the problems of the world.” He insisted that “the ultimate purpose of our foreign policy must be to protect the liberty of the people of the United States,” arguing that wars must not be fought “to impose our ideas of freedom on the rest of the world.”
“Certainly, we did not go to war to reform the world,” Taft once said of World War II, which he had opposed until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. But he was not the Republican Party’s most consistent non-interventionist in either foreign or domestic affairs. He was simply the most influential one.
Taft waged strong Republican presidential campaigns in 1940 and 1948. “There is only way to beat the New Deal, and that is head-on,” he said, summarizing his view of how Republicans must compete with Democrats. “You can’t outdeal them.”
Yet Taft moved strategically against the welfare state, leaving parts intact while working to abolish other programs. His most successful run for president came in 1952, when it appeared he would finally secure the Republican nomination—until his hated Eastern establishment rivals, fearing Taft’s foreign policy wasn’t assertive enough against the Soviets, recruited Dwight Eisenhower.
It was a brutal fight at the Republican National Convention, but Eisenhower prevailed after a controversial motion deprived Taft of many Southern delegates. Taft complained bitterly, “Every Republican candidate for president since 1936 has been nominated by Chase National Bank.”
Eisenhower was elected president, briefly bringing another Republican Congress along with him. Taft became Senate majority leader. Mr. Republican got along well with his former rival, frequently playing golf with the president. During the campaign, Taft had won concessions from Eisenhower on spending cuts.
Taft’s opportunity to lead the Senate while working with a friendly president was cut short by cancer. Although his take on foreign threats was not always so prescient, his final speech focused in part on warning against U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia.
Taft died in late July 1953, and for a time it seemed his strain of conservative Republicanism died with him. In the Tea Party era, however, it may be coming back to life.
W. James Antle, III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation. Taft stamp image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire