By Steven R. Maher
If the Republican Party has one modern idol, it’s Ronald Reagan. Listening to Republicans talk about Reagan is like hearing teenagers swoon about their first love. But if there’s a Republican President the party should be praying to reappear, it’s the 34th President, Dwight David Eisenhower. The World War II commander in the European theater, it was Eisenhower who led the Republicans out of the wilderness into which the Great Depression had cast them.
Eisenhower was President from January 1953 to January 1961. Eisenhower ended the Korean War, balanced the federal budget, and kept the country out of any wars. While many of his contemporaries viewed Eisenhower as a mediocrity, after the turmoil of the 1960s the Eisenhower era was seen as a period of prosperity. This was exemplified by the 1970s TV show “Happy Days,” in which the 1950s were depicted as a happy interregnum of peacetime affluence and contentment.
Eisenhower resisted two modern Republican trends that zenithed under George W. Bush: exploding deficits through the fiscal foolishness of “supply side economics” and “pre-emptive war” against potential threats. Under Bush, the twin evils of supply side economics and pre-emptive war have led America to the edge of the abyss.
Supply side economics theorizes that cutting taxes spurs economic growth, producing more tax revenue than are lost through the tax cuts. In reality, supply side economics increases budget deficits by reducing revenue.
“The extreme promises of supply-side economics did not materialize,” wrote economists Karl Case and Ray Fair in 2007. “President Reagan argued that because of the effect depicted in the Laffer curve, the government could maintain expenditures, cut tax rates, and balance the budget. This was not the case. Government revenues fell sharply from levels that would have been realized without the tax cuts.”
Eisenhower resisted supply side economics, according to Stephen E. Ambrose’s biography Eisenhower the President. When Eisenhower took office there was a large deficit, partly due to the Korean War. Supply siders wanted to cut taxes anyway.
“Taxes are a problem for every President, of course, but they were especially irksome for Eisenhower because of the Republican insistence that they be cut, at once, regardless of the size of the deficit,” wrote Ambrose. “Eisenhower repeated over and over that he would not allow a tax cut until he had a balanced budget..” Eisenhower understood, as Reagan and the second Bush did not, that cutting taxes in a time of deficit grows the deficit, not reduces the deficit.
Eisenhower saw fiscal restraint as the greatest of economic virtues, a balanced budget the key not only to government living within its means but essential to a healthy economy. It’s no accident that the Eisenhower boom in the 1950s and the Clinton boom in the 1990s were both accompanied by balanced budgets and the absence of war.
Likewise, Eisenhower refused to wage pre-emptive war against Communist China. In the 1950s Red China was a much greater threat than Iran is today: the world’s most populous country, it had waged a bloody war against the United States in Korea, invaded Tibet, shelled the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, and attempted to destabilize pro-American regimes in Asia. Eisenhower was urged to pre-emptively attack China before it acquired nuclear weapons. Sound familiar?
“Five times in 1954, virtually the entire NSC, JCS and state department recommended that he intervene in Asia, even using atomic bombs in China,” writes Ambrose. “Five times in one year the experts advised the President to launch an atomic strike on China. Five times he said no.”
Eisenhower never would have invaded Iraq. Not in a million years.
Who can do it?
The Republican Party in 1952 was in a similar position to that of today. The country was reluctant to entrust the government to the party blamed for the economic meltdown of the Great Depression. Eisenhower was seen as a centrist figure who had shown his mettle managing the European theater in World War II. He was trustworthy.
Just who today could be the Eisenhower figure who could lead the Republicans out of the Bush wilderness? Not the likes of Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney. Both men espouse their commitment to the supply side economics and pre-emptive war that have created America’s economic black hole.
Until his endorsement of Obama, Colin Powell would have been the logical choice. Powell has long been known for his admiration of Eisenhower, particularly Eisenhower’s restraint in the use of military force. But his Obama endorsement ended Powell’s electoral viability in the Republican Party. That leaves only one other choice.
General David H. Petraeus
Patraeus is a legendary figure in the Republican party due to the success of his “surge” strategy that stabilized Iraq. The Republican Presidential nomination would virtually be his for the asking. He has an impressive background. As a military man he would proceed cautiously in using military force. The big mystery is whether Petraeus would embrace the cockamamie theory of supply side economics.
In 1952 Eisenhower had the choice of the Democratic or Republican nomination. One of the reasons Eisenhower choose the Republicans was because he believed a viable two party system was essential to American democracy. Perhaps Petraeus could answer his nation’s call and lead the Republican Party away from suuply side economics to the successful Eisenhower model of balanced budgets and fiscal restraint.