JIM NEWTON: Today’s politicians could learn from Eisenhower’s centrism

By Jim Newton

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, he came to office convinced that among the obligations he assumed was that of calming the nation. His predecessors, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, had governed through a series of crises and calamities — World War II, the Berlin Crisis, the Soviet atomic bomb, the Korean War, the 1952 steel strike — and Ike believed that Washington’s fixation with crisis was unsettling to the American people and destabilizing to the economy.

With that in mind, he set out to project an aura of calm command, and consistently sought a place between the anti-communist Republicans who anchored the right wing of his party and the New Deal Democrats who pulled that party to its left. It was, Eisenhower liked to say, his “Middle Way,” a “practical working basis between extremists” arrived at through patient and temperate negotiation.

Few lessons of Eisenhower’s era have been more lost on the heirs to his political legacy. The events of the past two weeks have included many political sins, but among the most striking is the rush of America’s leaders to court crisis rather than exhibit sober, sound leadership. For weeks, Republican House members risked economic calamity by their refusal to raise the debt ceiling — an act that dozens of Congresses have routinely approved in the decades since Eisenhower’s presidency. Some seemed to enjoy it. As Rep. Michele Bachmann said glibly: “Someone has to say no. I will.” And House Speaker John Boehner fairly shouted when he proclaimed, “I stuck my neck out a mile.”

In public, Eisenhower would not be caught shouting or boasting (in private, he had a withering temper), but his devotion to subdued leadership was founded on more than personal style. He believed that the American people were naturally industrious and that, left alone, American business was entrepreneurial and innovative. He was convinced that a sense of constant crisis inhibited the natural instincts of this culture, and that a restrained government would give room for American individualism to flourish.

Some of those same notions, though expressed in different language, underscore the stakes today. The few calm voices in our politics warn that business and investment are paralyzed by uncertainty. Millions of Americans are out of work in part because employers are reluctant to add jobs while the government is so tumultuous. No business can be reassured by congressional leaders who fume and bicker as the government careens toward the precipice.

In fairness, Eisenhower’s commitment to reducing tensions and seeking compromise did not always serve him or the country well. In the area of civil rights, he sought in vain for a center, imagining falsely that those who demanded recognition of their rights were just as “extreme” as those who sought to suppress those rights. Indeed, Eisenhower himself acknowledged that there should be an exception for compromise in matters of moral urgency, though he unfortunately did not place civil rights in that category.

But even there, his legacy is instructive. For congressional Republicans who were willing to jeopardize America’s credit, it would be a defense to say that they were taking a stand on a matter of moral principle. If so, however, what is the great principle that undergirded this fiasco? Is it immoral to raise the debt ceiling, as such stalwart conservatives as Ronald Reagan did so often without incident? Or is the moral abomination, perhaps, the willingness to raise taxes, as Obama had hoped to do as part of a larger deficit-reduction package?

The latter is closer to the Republican mark, but it, too, falls apart as a moral proposition. John Podesta, who served as chief of staff in the Clinton White House, recently pointed out to the U.S. Conference of Mayors that the entire amount of revenue that Obama was seeking could have been achieved merely by allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire, returning the top marginal tax rate in the U.S. code from 35 percent to 39 percent, where it was when Clinton left office. As Podesta noted, the country hardly seemed afflicted by the Clinton-era rates; the economy grew, many Americans prospered, and Clinton actually produced budget surpluses.

In fact, those surpluses were the first — and last — by any president since, yep, Eisenhower. And the Eisenhower prosperity — rapid economic growth and real, sustained increases in household income — occurred in an era when the top bracket of taxpayers paid federal income taxes of 91 percent on all income above $400,000 a year (admittedly, a lot of money in 1959). In light of that history, can a 4 percent rise in the top marginal rate of taxes constitute such a moral imperative that elected leaders are entitled to refuse to compromise on principle? Eisenhower believed in balanced budgets, and unlike his successors, he actually delivered them. That’s because he was a leader, not a shouter.