The Ripon Forum

Volume 0, No. 0

Winter 2009 Issue

More like Ike

By on December 1, 2015

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Two years ago, the Republican Party lost control of both houses of Congress and a majority of governorships.

Last year, the party lost the White House. And during the past few years, the party has lost the confidence of the American people. An unpopular war and an economic collapse will do that.

But while the power of the party has receded, the promise of the party has not.

As Republicans look to the future, perhaps they should also look to the past. And not only to the 1980s. Too many Republicans assume that a renaissance begins with re-creating Reagan.

But in large part, Reagan’s greatness comes from having fought and won his battles. The issues Reagan confronted no longer exist: massive inflation, 70% marginal tax rates, aggressive communism-they’re gone. It’s time to confront new issues and new challenges. Perhaps it’s also time to look back to another Republican who was a successful, popular two-term president.

Yet Dwight Eisenhower has become a man without a party. Indeed, much of the conservative establishment of today took root in the 1950s. National Review was first published in 1955, for example. And in the first year of Ike’s presidency, scholar Russell Kirk exhumed Edmund Burke from his grave and brought him to life in a book called The Conservative Mind. In it, Kirk told American conservatives that they should look to the eighteenth-century British statesman for inspiration.

One of the interesting attributes of Burke’s legacy is that he espoused a set of broad principles, but refrained from endorsing a specific ideology. Burke didn’t have a conservative philosophy so much as he had a conservative mindset. He saw conservatism not as an agenda of issues but as an approach with which to deal with issues as they developed.

The Pragmatic Warrior

Eisenhower, though he might not have been a political conservative, was certainly a personal one. Like Burke, he believed in organic evolution, the idea that change happens over time, step by step. When Burke spoke of the “wisdom of the ancients,” he cautioned that decades and centuries of tradition and reverence for institutions should not be disregarded overnight. Like a coral reef, society is built up over centuries, eventually becoming a wave-resistant sanctuary for life.

He was also fundamentally a Cold War president who sought to make the world safer and the country more secure. This theme informed all his policies.

For starters, Ike tried to run the government like a business. Many politicians say this; Ike lived it. He balanced the federal budget three times in his eight years. Yet he understood the difference between spending and investment. While he opposed frivolous programs, he invested heavily in national defense, education, space and transportation. These investments provided huge dividends for the country. The president saw all these programs as part of his Cold War strategy. For example, he had seen the need for better roads in a time of crisis as a young Army officer. The interstate highway system was designed not just to help move people around, but troops and equipment, too.

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Ike tried to run the government like a business. Many politicians say this; Ike lived it.

In world affairs, Ike wanted to confront communist aggression. But he knew that in the nuclear age, total war meant annihilation. Thus, he settled Korean War and preserved the freedom of South Korea. And he resisted enormous pressure to intervene with regular troops in Vietnam, and sent a few military advisors. Instead, he believed the Cold War and the nuclear age required new ways of countering the Soviets. In particular, he upgraded the intelligence service and made this a key part of American Cold War strategy. And he personally pushed for the development of aerial and satellite-based reconnaissance systems.

Eisenhower even saw the most difficult domestic challenge he faced—civil rights—as a national security issue. When speaking of freedom in his first inaugural address, he said: “whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.” Yet freedom eluded an entire race in America. And so Ike sought to change that. Even though he preferred the velvet cords of persuasion to the iron bonds of law, he did pursue civil rights.

First, Ike desegregated the District of Columbia. Second, he desegregated the military, something started-but not finished-by Truman. Third, he agreed to let Attorney General Herbert Brownell file a brief on behalf of the NAACP that separate schools were unequal. When the ruling came down, he vowed to enforce it. Fourth, he pushed for and signed the first major civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. Fifth, he appointed fair-minded judges who would hand the civil rights movement its biggest victories for years to come. “The best civil rights judges in the South,” remembered Andrew Young, “were the Eisenhower appointees…”

Still, Eisenhower had long feared that inflamed passions on civil rights might one day erupt into a “conflict of the police powers of the states and of the nation” and he feared that when that day came it might “set back the cause of progress in race relations…”That day came in September 1957 at Little Rock.

When Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus obstructed a court-approved desegregation plan by posting Arkansas National Guard troops in front of Central High School, the nation faced its gravest constitutional crisis since the Civil War. All of Ike’s fears about “another civil war” appeared to be coming to fruition.

Yet he never wavered. He allowed Faubus time and space to reconsider. He met with him in person. He urged him to do the right thing. And at last, when no other option was available, he sent elements of the 101st Airborne to Little Rock. The nine African-American children integrated the school. The crisis ended. The civil rights movement had scored one of its greatest victories ever. But not before Ike addressed the nation and noted the Cold War implications of American hypocrisy on race. “Our enemies are gloating,” he said.

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Too many Republicans assume that a renaissance begins with re-creating Reagan… Perhaps it’s also time to look back to another Republican who was a successful, popular two-term president.

A Consistent Theme, A Conservative Approach

So what can Republicans learn today from Ike’s presidency? They can learn the importance of tying all their policies together under a single banner. For Eisenhower, national security required a balanced budget, more infrastructure, even civil rights. This theme provided a cohesion to his policies and his presidency.

Republicans can also learn that conservatism is an approach, not an agenda. For Ike, incremental change beat revolutionary zeal. Too often, Republicans have drunk from the fount of power and pursued grand plans. Better to walk the sober path of modest steps and gradual progress.

Republicans can learn that realism must be the foundation of foreign policy. The party must accept the realities of this world before it can seek to change them. Idealism can help inform the party’s philosophical architecture; but it must be built upon the pier and beam of hard realism.

Finally, Republicans can learn that old parties need new ideas. Certainly in foreign policy, Eisenhower showed innovation in how he viewed the world and how he fought the Cold War.

For today’s Republican Party, it might be time to go back to the future…and become a little more like Ike.

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Kasey S. Pipes wrote speeches for President Bush and Governor Schwarzenegger. “Ike’s Final Battle” is his first book. For more information, go towww.kaseypipes.com

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