I greatly admire Sowell, but I can’t understand his citation of an utterly fictitious “long string of Republican presidential candidates who seized the center—and lost elections.” In this context he mentions Thomas Dewey, who was beaten by Truman in long-ago 1948, without acknowledging that the famously centrist Eisenhower won a crushing landslide just four years later (442 electoral votes) and then did even better in his 1956 reelection drive (57 percent of the popular vote, 457 electoral votes).
Sowell’s “long string” of losing centrist candidates consists of only two consecutive campaigns in the last 60 years: the failed reelection bid for the “kinder, gentler” first President Bush in 1992 and the dismal effort by an aging Bob Dole to unseat Bill Clinton four years later. It’s noteworthy that Dole, despite his Washington-insider background, attempted to run to the right, not the center, in the general election. He proposed dismantling the Department of Education and cutting capital-gains taxes by half, and selected conservative hero Jack Kemp as his running mate. Both Dole and Bush, however, found themselves badly damaged by the quixotic third-party campaigns of Ross Perot, which drew heavily from voters of the center-right, and helped make Clinton twice victorious without ever winning popular-vote majorities.
This history bears review because it makes the point that selecting the strongest candidate doesn’t always mean selecting the most conservative candidate. Losing GOP campaigns aren’t simply a matter of “’Republican In Name Only’ failures” (in the words of one of the letters to The Wall Street Journal protesting my column), any more than triumphant Republican candidacies involve only robust, unapologetic conservatives.