Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Two Key Moments in GOP History

I've sometimes wondered how the party of Lincoln became the party of Bush. There was much to like in the early GOP intentions and beliefs.

magazine recently ran an article that looked at four of the most contentious party conventions in US history (each of which makes anything that happened in this campaign seem lightweight). Two of them were GOP conventions in which the impulse for moderation and progress was squashed beneath hardline conservative ideology.

First up, 1912 (if Roosevelt had prevailed, I'd probably be a Republican):

For years, the tensions within the Grand Old Party had been building over the issue of government regulation. During his presidency, Roosevelt had advocated a "Square Deal" between capital and labor in American society. By the time he left the White House in March 1909, Roosevelt believed that the federal government must do more to supervise large corporations, improve the lot of women and children who worked long hours for low wages in industry, and conserve natural resources. "When I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service," he said in August 1910. Roosevelt was especially critical of the state and federal courts for overturning reform legislation as unconstitutional, and he said that such decisions were "fundamentally hostile to every species of real popular government."

Roosevelt's burgeoning crusade for more active government reflected his loss of faith in William Howard Taft, whom the former Rough Rider had chosen as his successor. As president, Taft had sided with the conservative wing of the party, which had opposed Roosevelt's reforms at every turn. For his part, Taft believed Roosevelt had stretched the power of the executive branch too far. As a lawyer and former federal judge, Taft had nothing but disdain for his predecessor's jaundiced view of the judiciary. "The regret which he certainly expressed that the courts had the power to set aside statutes," wrote the president, "was an attack upon our system at the very point where I think it is the strongest."

Tensions deepened in 1912, when Roosevelt began advocating the recall of judicial decisions through popular vote. With the courts tamed as an enemy to reform, Roosevelt then would press forward "to see that the wage-worker, the small producer, the ordinary consumer, shall get their fair share of the benefit of business prosperity." To enact his program, Roosevelt signaled that he would accept another term as president and seek the nomination of the Republican Party.

These ambitions revealed, Taft and his fellow conservatives deemed Roosevelt a dangerous radical. Once in power for a third term, they said, Roosevelt would be a perpetual chief executive. Roosevelt had become the most dangerous man in American history, said Taft, "because of his hold upon the less intelligent voters and the discontented." The social justice that Roosevelt sought involved, in Taft's opinion, "a forced division of property, and that means socialism."

Taft won that convention battle and the GOP became the party of Big Business.

The second big moment occurred in 1964, when the party chose the path that made Reagan and Bush possible. For many, that convention signaled a return to conservative values, and the loss in 1964 to Johnson was the beginning of a new era of GOP domination.

And what a show the GOP convention was! Conservatives from the West, the South and the Midwest were convinced that the only way moderate "Wall Street Republicans" had been able to run away with the presidential nomination every four years was that "a few secret kingmakers in New York" conspired to steal it, as Illinois activist Phyllis Schlafly put it in a self-published book, A Choice Not an Echo, several hundred thousand copies of which were distributed in the summer of 1964. (Some convention delegates reported receiving more than 60 copies in the mail.) They weren't going to let it be stolen this time.

Goldwater's finance chairman, Bill Middendorf, warned campaign aide Dean Burch that "the 1952 tricks will be used again": planted stories, whispering campaigns, threats, cajolery and the "shanghaiing and spiriting of delegates and alternates to distant points." Goldwater delegates were warned to be on the lookout "for unexpectedly easy companionship from new-found female friends." They were to contact the Goldwater headquarters on the 15th floor of the Mark Hopkins immediately after landing at the airport and to travel around town in pairs along pre-timed routes in radio-equipped cars. They used walkie-talkies only as back-ups, because these could be too easily tapped into—as, indeed, they had tapped into Scranton's.

Bill Scranton, whose patrician family ran the Pennsylvania coal town that bore his name, seemed to comedian Dick Gregory like "the guy who runs to John Wayne for help." (Goldwater looked like a cowboy.) Scranton had entered the race as a last-minute act of noblesse oblige. "Today the nation—and indeed the world—waits to see if another proud political banner will falter, grow limp and collapse in the dust," he had said as he announced his candidacy just four weeks before the convention. "Lincoln would cry out in pain if we sold out our principles."

According to a Harris Poll taken late that June, 62 percent of rank and file Republicans preferred Scranton to Goldwater, but the supposed Wall Street kingmakers were in dithering disarray. ("What in God's name has happened to the Republican Party!" muttered Henry Cabot Lodge —the party's 1960 vice presidential nominee—as he paged through the delegate list in his hotel room. "I hardly know any of these people!") The moderates' strategy was to put the Goldwaterites' perceived extremism on televised display, hoping delegates would flock to Scranton after being flooded by telegrams from outraged voters watching at home.

The moderates circulated a translation of an interview Goldwater had given to a German newsmagazine, in which he was quoted as saying he would tell his generals in Vietnam, "Fellows, we made the decision to win, now it's your problem." CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr then reported, "It is now clear that Senator Goldwater's interview with Der Spiegel with its hard line appealing to right-wing elements in Germany was only the start of a move to link up with his opposite numbers in Germany," with Schorr basing his assertion simply on the fact that Goldwater would be vacationing after the convention at an American military installation that was, coincidentally, in the former Nazi stronghold of Bavaria. (Schorr later said he did not mean to suggest "a conscious effort" by Goldwater to connect with the German right.)

Goldwater prevailed in the convention and was crushed by Johnson in the general election. But the moment was crucial -- the party chose Goldwater's conservatism, ran Nixon in 1968, and have only three presidential elections since 1964.

In both cases, I would have preferred the moderates and progressives prevailed -- but then we would not have Obama poised to become the first black president. It seems that if Roosevelt had won in 1912, we might already have had a black or a woman president, but who knows.

The fun of history is that we can only look back for clues to how we got to where we are now.