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  • The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party
  • Jeffrey Leatherwood
The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party. By Michael Bowen. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. 245.)

The Roots of Modern Conservatism has emerged with impeccable timing, while today’s Republican leaders joust over their conservative credentials and rank-and-file voters attempt to redefine exactly what their Grand Old Party signifies for the new century. Roots is a political history that examines the GOP’s postwar factionalism, dating back to Governor Thomas E. Dewey’s failure to unseat President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. Charting the evolution of Republican conservatism to its full realization in 1964, Bowen questions the conventional view of a “liberal consensus,” arguing instead that the GOP’s moderate wing controlled the party throughout the Eisenhower years, a period marked by a high tide for liberal Democrats.

Capitalizing on FDR’s perceived missteps and growing voter disenchantment in 1944, Dewey tried to siphon away members of the New Deal coalition. Known for his moderate views on organized labor and civil rights, the New York governor endorsed the continuation of many New Deal programs. However, Roosevelt handily defeated Dewey based on his successful record as commander-in-chief. Following a second Dewey failure against President Harry Truman in 1948, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio gradually took over the Republican Party’s leadership by casting his chief rival’s style of conservatism as being less than simon-pure.

Through Roots of Conservatism, readers can learn much about the inner workings of party politics on the national stage. Taft, popularly known as “Mr. Republican,” used his clout to oust pro-Dewey members of the Republican National Committee, starting with its chairman, Hugh Scott. One of Bowen’s greatest strengths is his ability to seamlessly inject dialogue between the two principal party leaders and their lesser-known allies. Through private letters and internal correspondence, a possibly bewildering coterie of GOP wheeler-dealers and power-brokers becomes more distinct and interesting. Bowen makes ample use of the Herbert Brownell, B. Carroll Reece, and Harold Stassen papers, among several other collections.

Over the next three years, Taft continued to develop the GOP as a viable alternative to the New Deal coalition, while remaining a “pragmatic” [End Page 97] conservative. As co-author of the Taft-Hartley Act, the Ohio senator sought to undercut perceived Socialist influence in organized labor, yet he empathized with working families to the point of supporting public housing. Even though Taft favored states’ rights in such public issues as desegregation, he broke with party hardliners when he openly supported federal aid for higher education (51–53, 67–68).

By 1952, Taft stood poised to enter the White House, aided by his re-election as senator. However, during the Texas GOP primary, Taft suffered a humiliating reversal from the followers of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a newcomer to national politics. Ike’s personal victory in Texas spurred hopes among GOP members for a conservative resurgence in the South and Midwest, where New Deal spirits had ebbed. As Bowen argues in his first chapter, “outside the Northeast and some areas of the West, top-level Republicans saw little benefit in moderation” (36).

However, the author’s work characterizes Eisenhower’s primary win as a bittersweet vindication for the moderate Thomas Dewey, whose forces rallied to the war hero’s banner. Meanwhile, as Taft reeled from his rebuff in Texas, the senator became more hard-line in turn. Even so, Taft’s loyal “organization could not turn the 1952 race into a question of conservative principles,” because Eisenhower refused to debate about anything except foreign policy, one of the isolationist senator’s few points of vulnerability (122–23). Just before the November elections, Taft healed the rift between himself and the future president, but the tired senator died shortly after the Republicans returned to power in 1953. Therefore, Taft’s conciliatory efforts had little impact upon Eisenhower’s “dynamic conservatism.” Instead, Dewey’s faction helped to shape Ike’s balanced approach toward civil rights, social welfare...


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