IRREGULAR TIMESTelling Truman:
advice from Yesteryear
on Democrats, Detractors and Democracy

--August 25, 2003
The press has been filled with admonitions by Joseph Lieberman and the "Democratic Leadership Council" (oddly enough, self-appointed) for those who would run for President in 2004. No candidate can succeed who is seen as too Democratic, too liberal, too wishy-washy on war, too critical of the World Trade Organization, too questioning of war as a political tool. The best way for a Democrat to win a Presidential election, according to Lieberman and the DLC, is to act more like a Republican.

As I read the words of these gentlemen (no ladies are among this lot), I noticed that none of these expert commentators had ever themselves won a Presidential contest. The lack of experience among this lot in the very thing that they're professing is a bit unsettling. Mightn't we rank-and-file members do better to listen to the voice of actual success?

Looking for that voice, I found myself at the doorstep (virtually speaking) of the Truman Presidential Library. More than half a century ago, Harry S. Truman beat back "unbeatable" Republican Thomas Dewey to keep the Presidency in capable Democratic hands. Harry gave 'em hell. What advice could he give us today?

The following are selections from a speech Truman gave after his electoral battles had ended. I found this prescription of a proven political winner to be telling; perhaps you might, too.

The words of Harry S. Truman


Address at the National Convention Banquet of the Americans for Democratic Action.
May 17, 1952
(source: Truman Presidential Museum and Library)

"You can always count on the Republicans, in an election year, to remind the people of what the Republican Party really stands for. You can always count on them to make it perfectly clear before the campaign is over that the Republican Party is the party of big business, and that they would like to turn the country back to the big corporations and the big bankers in New York to run it as they see fit. They are just not going to do it.

Just leave them alone, and the Republicans will manage to scare the daylights out of the farmer and the wage earner and the average American citizen. They always do that....

This year they are at it again. The Republicans think they have been so successful with their campaign of smears and character assassination that they have the Democrats on the run. And they just can't restrain themselves enough to hide their true colors until after the election. They are too impatient. First one way and then another they are giving themselves away....

The main body of the Republican leaders are doing just what they do every election year. They are making it good and plain to the American people that so far as domestic policies are concerned, the Republican Party is the party of reaction and the party of special privilege....

Now, we can always rely on the Republicans to help us in an election year, but we can't count on them to do the whole job for us. We have got to go out and do some of it ourselves, if we expect to win.

The first rule in my book is that we have to stick by the liberal principles of the Democratic Party. We are not going to get anywhere by trimming or appeasing. And we don't need to try it.

The record the Democratic Party has made in the last 20 years is the greatest political asset any party ever had in the history of the world. We would be foolish to throw it away. There is nothing our enemies would like better and nothing that would do more to help them win an election.

I've seen it happen time after time. When the Democratic candidate allows himself to be put on the defensive and starts apologizing for the New Deal and the fair Deal, and says he really doesn't believe in them, he is sure to lose. The people don't want a phony Democrat. If it's a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat, and I don't want any phony Democratic candidates in this campaign.

But when a Democratic candidate goes out and explains what the New Deal and fair Deal really are -- when he stands up like a man and puts the issues before the people -- then Democrats can win, even in places where they have never won before. It has been proven time and again.

We are getting a lot of suggestions to the effect that we ought to water down our platform and abandon parts of our program. These, my friends, are Trojan horse suggestions. I have been in politics for over 30 years, and I know what I am talking about, and I believe I know something about the business. One thing I am sure of: never, never throw away a winning program. This is so elementary that I suspect the people handing out this advice are not really well-wishers of the Democratic Party.

More than that, I don't believe they have the best interests of the American people at heart. There is something more important involved in our program than simply the success of a political party.

The rights and the welfare of millions of Americans are involved in the pledges made in the Democratic platform.... And those rights and interests must not be betrayed.

These are some of the principles for which the Democratic Party stands.... We stand for better education, better health, greater opportunities for all. We stand for fair play and decency, for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and the cherished principle that a man is innocent until he is proven guilty.

Taken together, these principles are the articles of the liberal faith. I am sure that the liberal faith is the political faith of the great majority of Americans. It sometimes happens that circumstances of time and place combine to deny its expression. But the faith is there, and the reactionaries can never hope to have any but temporary advantage in this country.


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