Harry Truman is the Republican Party's favorite Democrat. He has been since Barry Goldwater startled his conservative supporters in 1964 with lavish praise for the president the GOP had learned to loathe. So it comes as no surprise to hear George Bush vow he will wage a Truman-style comeback campaign with plenty of "give 'em hell" for the Democratic Congress.
There are obvious parallels between the re-election plights of these two politicians: Both running far behind at convention time. Both deadlocked with a Congress dominated by the other party. Both held in low esteem by critics within their own parties.
But whether Mr. Bush can repeat the Truman upset is a question that scrambles pat comparisons. In 1948, the nation was pulling out of its first post-war recession more smartly than it is now emerging from its longest post-war recession. The Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, was more smug and less confrontational than Bill Clinton. Perhaps most pertinently, Mr. Clinton can hardly be unmindful of the Truman analogy after President Bush's rousing pre-convention speech invoking a Democratic president who is not around to repudiate such exploitation.
Just as Harry Truman barnstormed the country lambasting the "do-nothing 80th Congress," Mr. Bush hopes to fend off criticism by blaming the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill for the country's economic problems.
Senior statesman Ronald Reagan enshrined that strategy with an opening night salvo. "A lot of liberal Democrats are saying it's time for a change, and they're right," said the former president. "The only trouble is they're pointing to the wrong end of Pennsylvania Avenue. . . For 50 of the last 60 years the Democrats have controlled the Senate. And they've had the House of Representatives for 56 of the last 60 years. It's time to clean house."
This strikes us as the best means available for a Bush counterattack. There is constant deadlock on Capitol Hill as Democratic leaders rebuff White House proposals, seek to impose their own alternatives and lose every time on veto showdowns. Legislative accomplishments remain minimal. It is interesting that the Clinton organization went to great lengths during the Democratic National Convention to keep congressional bigwigs such as Speaker Tom Foley and Senate majority leader George Mitchell out of sight.
A Bush campaign against Congress would be a lot more substantive and potentially useful for voters than nasty personal attacks under the guise of "family values." It could set the stage for more productive legislating next year, regardless of the election outcome.
So we welcome George Bush's attempt to become another Congress-bashing Harry Truman, 1948 vintage. This would be far preferable to the re-emergence of another dirty-tricks George Bush, 1988 vintage.