06/27/2012 01:32 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

A Fighter for the Ages

Harry Truman, 64 years after he pulled off the political "heist" of the 20th century, still romances political observers with his surprise victory over Thomas Dewey in 1948. After this many years there is little agreement as to precisely what happened to cause the politically "dead" Truman to win, but that election, in a no less complicated and dangerous world than ours, offers us a window into what might unfold in the next five months.

Like Truman, in order to win, Obama must take head-on not only the powerful forces of privilege and greed in this country but also Republicans in Congress that are at least as unpopular as Truman's foil, the infamous Republican Do Nothing Congress six decades ago.

To be sure, the accomplished Governor of New York was overconfident and rejected the advice of his senior handlers to campaign aggressively. He spoke in empty platitudes, playing not to lose, and he learned the wrong lessons from his defeat to FDR in 1944.

As the leader of the "Eastern Establishment," he accepted the majority of New Deal social-welfare reforms enacted by Roosevelt. And he was an internationalist. Dewey was a serious political figure. But he allowed himself to become ensnared in a vise between the Republican "do nothing" 80th Congress and his party's emerging right wing.

And what of the rough-edged, gritty, unelected Harry Truman who never attended college, was a failed businessman, and who, two and a half years into FDR's fourth term, was still trying to define himself to a skeptical nation and hold together the fraying New Deal coalition?

The challenges he faced were enormous: a disorderly postwar reconversion of the economy, severe shortages, strikes, and the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act over his veto. His decision to drop the atomic bomb, the founding of the U.N., the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine to contain communism, the beginning of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift, the creation of NATO, the Chinese Civil War, and the Korean War all defined his stewardship during the turbulent post-war era.

He always allowed himself to be underestimated by his foes to great effect and he did just that in '48. Acutely aware of his political vulnerability, early on he formed a campaign strategy apparatus which kept him focused on his liberal tendencies. And he was the beneficiary of perhaps the most highly regarded strategic political memorandum in the history of American politics written by James Rowe, which predicted the political events of 1948 with startling accuracy and charted the course of the greatest political comeback of all time. It's basic thrust was "It's impossible to cooperate when the other party controls Congress. Don't even try. Instead, marshal public opinion to your side."

Deep into the spring of 1948 his approval rating stood at 36 percent, and he was nearly universally regarded as incapable of winning. Prominent New Dealers tried to swing the Democratic nomination to General Eisenhower. He faced defections on his left by former Vice President Henry Wallace, and the southern revolt on the right by the Dixiecrats and Strom Thurmond. Yet Truman outflanked his opponents to win the nomination and he utilized one of the most complex political landscapes ever to defeat three opposing and ideologically diverse candidacies.

Dumb like a fox, Truman was incredibly self aware, and confident in what he believed in. And he wasn't afraid to fight for working people and against the privileged moneyed interests. It wasn't until 2:00 a.m. that he gave his convention acceptance speech: "...I will win this election and make those Republicans like it," he declared. "Don't you forget that. We will do that because they are wrong and we are right."

Then he eviscerated the Republican Congress, calling them the worst Congress in history and called them back during the hot Washington summer for a special session to "pass laws halting rising prices and to meet the housing crisis which they say they're for in their platform." He also called for action on a national health insurance program, on civil rights, on education and on an increase in the minimum wage. "What that worst 80th Congress does in its special session will be the test...The American people will decide on the record."

Truman had set his trap. The 80th Congress did virtually nothing.

He was the president and he made sure that Republicans and the country knew it. As the special session was convening Truman issued a controversial executive order that integrated the military and many Democratic pros were concerned that the loss of Dixiecrat support might destroy the Party. The fear was well-founded -- Thurmond declared his candidacy and led a full-scale revolt which was mirrored by an upheaval on the left, led by Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket.

Immediately after its first post-FDR convention, the Democratic Party found itself disintegrating. Victory in November seemed a remote possibility, with the party not simply split but divided three ways.

The Rowe memo predicted this. Wallace became a magnet for the far left and became marginalized in the vice of the "red scare." His campaign pulled Truman leftward. Thurmond took the south out of play and allowed the president to focus hard on Northeast and Midwest African American voters, and gave him traction on the civil rights issue.

In the Spring, off of the political radar screen, Truman and his team boarded the presidential train Ferdinand Magellan and traveled west, road testing his messages and speeches. Truman was a stiff and uninspiring speaker; his aides confiscated his formal remarks and gave him just talking points on note cards. It transformed him, and the team saw that he had the capacity to connect with voters on the stump.

In the fall campaign, he did just that. Dewey and Truman hit the rails and "whistle stopped," but Dewey was uncomfortable, wooden and devoid of substance. He gave only a few speeches a day, while Truman sometimes delivered 12 to 14 talks in a day.

In Charleston, West Virginia, as he did throughout the country, Truman accused the Republicans as the "party of privilege," and excoriated them for bringing on the Great Depression, poverty and despair almost twenty years earlier. "It is easy to forget what the black days of the depression were like. Let us recall a few, just a few of the bitter facts," he said.

"The working men and women in this country could not do much to help themselves, because the strength of their unions had been broken by the reactionary labor policies of the Republican administration," he continued. And when the bubble burst in 1929, "there was no minimum wage to cushion the blow, there was no unemployment compensation to carry the working man's family along, there was no work relief program to help people through the crisis. But the party of privilege was ready to carry big business through the crisis. It created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation for that purpose. The banks, the railways, the insurance companies -- they got relief, but not the American people."

He detailed the record of the New Deal and delivered a stark choice for the voters.

"The Republicans would like you to forget these fundamental differences between the two parties. But during the past two years we have been given a sharp warning that these differences still exist, and these differences are wide and deep."

"That has been made completely clear by the record of this Republican "do-nothing" 80th Congress. No matter what the Republicans do or say, the Republicans cannot escape responsibility for that black record."

"The record of the 80th Congress was made by the forces that dominate the Republican Party," he continued. I will tell you how you can achieve unity in a headlong dash toward another depression. Just elect a Republican President to go along with a Republican Congress."

The pollsters never believed that Truman could win; some stopped polling soon after labor day. But Truman's crowds started to swell and in some locations upwards of 100,000 people turned out to listen.

On November 2nd, Truman arrived in Independence after delivering almost 300 speeches and traveled nearly 22,000 miles in 33 days over six weeks. Early in the evening he took a bath, ate his sandwich and went to sleep, alone among his advisers and family believing that he would win.

He was confident that he had drawn a line in the sand and made a compelling contrast with a clear message. He had asked the fundamental question in American politics, "who's on your side?"

When he awoke the next morning he had not only won, but the Democrats had recaptured both houses of Congress. He fought long and hard against all odds for what he believed in, he never backed down, and the people had listened.

A lesson for Barack Obama in 2012?

Al Madison is a public affairs counselor based in Washington, D.C.