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Memo To Hillary Clinton: Forget Trump — Steal A Page From Truman, Instead

Give ‘em hell, Hillary, writes Barbara Mende. Run against the Congress, and win. Pictured: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally at Omaha North High Magnet School in Omaha, Neb., Monday, Aug. 1, 2016. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Give ‘em hell, Hillary, writes Barbara Mende. Run against the Congress, and win. Pictured: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally at Omaha North High Magnet School in Omaha, Neb., Monday, Aug. 1, 2016. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Many are asking if Hillary Clinton can beat Donald Trump. Perhaps the better question — and a more urgent goal for the Democratic nominee -- is: Can she beat the Republicans?

Permit a sidebar into history: The election of 1948 is widely regarded as the greatest upset of all time. Harry S. Truman, who had ascended to the presidency after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, was given zero chance to win — his approval rating was 36 percent. He'd come up through one of the most notoriously corrupt party machines of the time, and he’d been fighting a Republican Congress since 1946. Henry Wallace, a former vice president, broke away from the Democrats and ran as a “Progressive” candidate. The Democratic establishment launched several frantic “Dump Truman” efforts. At the convention in Philadelphia, a mass of southern delegates walked out in a dispute over a civil rights platform plank, later to run Strom Thurmond as the States Rights Party candidate.

The Republicans blocked every measure Truman proposed... and the Democrats had their issue: 'The Do-Nothing Congress.'

Truman's opponent, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, was considered a shoo-in for the presidency, in part because the Democrats were so fractured. On Election Day, the Chicago Daily Tribune went so far as to publish its famously premature — and incorrect -- headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

But in accepting his party's nomination at the July convention in Philadelphia, Truman made a tactical move that turned things around: His acceptance speech didn’t mention Dewey. Not once.

It was all about the Republican-controlled 80th Congress, which Truman castigated for what it hadn’t done. Truman promised to call the Congress back into special session in two week's time, on July 26, and he did. The Republicans blocked every measure Truman proposed, including civil rights, social security and health care legislation, and the Democrats had their issue: “The Do-Nothing Congress.” 

During campaign whistle stops in the weeks leading up to Election Day, Truman addressed crowds when his train pulled into the station. Someone yelled, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry,” and the slogan took off. Truman protested, "I never give the Republicans Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it's Hell." Never a word about Dewey.

Come November, both houses of Congress went Democratic. If Hillary Clinton is to get anything done as president, she'll need a majority like that.

Our Democratic president has had to deal with a Congress as obstructionist and “do-nothing” as the 80th. Even so, we don't hear often enough that some of the popular Democrat-led initiatives, such as jobs creation, infrastructure maintenance and raising the minimum wage might have passed if not for that obstructionism.

When Clinton says she wants Supreme Court justices who will overturn Citizens United, she would do well to remind voters of one consequence in particular of that SCOTUS ruling: the 2010 midterm elections that led to the a majority-Republican Congress. Clinton would also do well to highlight the Republican stonewalling that leaves a Supreme Court seat vacant.

Clinton should steal a page from Truman's playbook and explain to Americans that the gridlock Trump complains about stems from within his own party.

Donald Trump is easy to attack, but what’s the point? He can hang himself without help. Attack Congress, and Clinton can show the country why the things it wants aren’t happening.

Pop quiz: Who said, “And the problem with Washington, they don’t make deals, it’s all gridlock, and then you have a president that signs executive orders because he can’t get anything done?” The Donald himself. Clinton should steal a page from Truman's playbook and explain to Americans that the gridlock Trump complains about stems from within his own party. Reaching across the aisle hasn’t worked since 2010, when both houses of Congress went Republican. As Truman concluded his convention speech, “The country can’t afford another Republican Congress.”

So give ‘em hell, Hillary. Run against the Congress, and win.

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Barbara Mende Cognoscenti contributor
Barbara Mende lives in Cambridge. She fends off retirement by freelancing as a bookkeeper, database manager, editor, webmaster and writer.

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