Political Hay

The Hundred Year GOP War

Centennial of first conservative-moderate GOP presidential fight -- a final winner in 2012?

By 1.10.12

Send to Kindle

1912.

2012.

Once upon a time… a long, long, loooonnnnnnnnng time ago in a political galaxy far away… the fight between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich began.

Specifically, it was 1912 -- a long 100 years ago -- when Republicans William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt launched the first intra-Republican Party war between conservatives and moderates. Or, as TR self-styled the latter, "progressives."

That first fight was a doozy. A battle royal pitting one-time best friends Taft and TR, sitting president and popular ex-president -- in a clamorous, knock-down, drag out fight. The fight ended a friendship, split the Republican Party, and, in the fall, with both men on the ballot -- Taft as the GOP nominee and TR as the candidate of the newly-created "Progressive Party" -- it ended with neither man winning, the country putting Democrat Woodrow Wilson into the White House.

The Taft-Roosevelt fight also launched what might now be officially called the Republican Party's "Hundred Year War."

With New Hampshire primary voters going to the polls today -- and the New Hampshire primary didn't come into being until 1916, four years after the Taft-TR battle -- it would be a mistake to look at today's battle between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich in isolation.

What America is really seeing here is the latest and perhaps most telling battle yet in a 100-year GOP war over the direction of the party. A party that some New Hampshire Republicans like to insist was born in New Hampshire -- Exeter, specifically -- at the instigation of prominent local lawyer and Abraham Lincoln friend Amos Tuck. (Tuck's initial meeting never took off and the usual nod for the birthplace of the GOP goes to Ripon, Wisconsin.)

Along the way this century-long conservative versus GOP moderates/progressives squabble has produced some other notable knock-down-drag-outs, notably including:

1952 -- Taft versus Eisenhower
1964 -- Goldwater versus Rockefeller
1976 -- Reagan versus Ford
1980 -- Reagan versus Bush

And yes, before and after those specific fights in this 100-year war there were other variations on the theme. The 1920s paired conservatives Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge after rejecting progressives General Leonard Wood (leading the TR progressives) and Frank Lowden, the progressive Governor of Illinois. Another GOP progressive, who lost that 1920 nomination, won the 1928 nomination and the election -- Herbert Hoover. The 1940s saw Ohio's conservative Senator Robert Taft battling -- and losing -- nominations to moderates Wendell Willkie and Thomas E. Dewey. Nineteen Sixty-eight had the new conservative Governor Reagan of California making a last minute go against moderates Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. Conservative Jack Kemp took on Reagan's moderate Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Pat Buchanan went after the incumbent President Bush in 1992, and entered the lists again in 1996 along with Steve Forbes and Pat Robertson, all losing to the moderate Bob Dole. The year 2000 produced a battle between two moderates -- with John McCain trying successfully to make himself the more left-leaning of the two -- and losing to Texas Governor George W. Bush. McCain carried the day in 2008 against fellow moderates Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani, conservative Fred Thompson, and libertarian Ron Paul.

Which brings us to the current stand-off between the moderate Mitt Romney and conservative Rick Santorum and -- yes, in spite of his critics -- the essentially Reagan conservative Newt Gingrich.

BUT STEP BACK. Forget the personalities here. Take a long look at this 100-year war and what does it say?

At its beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the progressive movement was ascendant. The idea of using the federal government to right some real or imagined public woe was relatively new and riding high. The 1912 fight had been prefaced by the almost eight-year presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and his increasingly progressive "Square Deal." In the words of the star progressive journalist of the day, Ray Stannard Baker, progressivism was "a deep-rooted, far-determined, slow-growing movement of the whole people." And so, arguably, it was.

William Howard Taft was what some would now call a conservative, but in fact he wasn't really. Not in the sense that conservatives are thought of today.

This was the dawn of the progressive era in America, and Taft was simply -- instinctively -- beginning to balk at the already relentless nature of the progressive urge to use the federal government to right every one of life's ills real or imagined. It was the era of the "muckraker," liberal investigative journalists who were busy uncovering what one Taft biographer described as everything from "unsafe working conditions in the factories and child labor to unclean and adulterated (contaminated) food and drugs." Among the progressive programs of the day were "employer liability acts, workman's compensation acts, minimum wages for women, widow's pensions, and mother's assistance acts… more efficient city government… commission and city-manager plans" and more. And, in a hint of what was to come, more still.

Taft had no organized conservative philosophy. In fact, in 1908 he was so closely associated with his friend Theodore Roosevelt (he was TR's Secretary of War) that he was assumed to be a thorough-going progressive himself. The growing ranks of Republican conservatives, after eight years of TR's progressive whirlwind, were hesitant about supporting Taft. But Roosevelt himself, no dummy, knew exactly why they would agree with him in supporting Taft. Said TR of the conservative reasoning: "We won't have Taft; but if we don't take Taft we will get Roosevelt; so we will take Taft."

To Roosevelt's chagrin, the moment Taft took office, progressives began to complain that Taft was not really one of them. There were none of their number in Taft's Cabinet, they protested. Businessmen -- capitalists! -- were getting the run of the then co-joined Department of Commerce and Labor. In a celebrated controversy the longtime Roosevelt admirer, ardent conservationist and progressive Gifford Pinchot was fired by Taft for his clashes with the non-progressive Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballenger over the management of public lands.

Remarked a disturbed Teddy Roosevelt of the protégé he had made his successor: William Howard Taft "did not really grasp progressive principles." 

The Republican Party, born as a champion of individual rights, was suddenly finding itself on the march to something new for the GOP: progressivism and collectivism. Indeed, as a result of the spectacular fight that was the Pinchot affair, and the sum total of Taft's policies, Teddy Roosevelt bolted the GOP entirely after losing the Republican nomination in a furious battle. So impassioned by his view of progressivism was Roosevelt that he boldly declared: "We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord."

When, in 1960, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater stepped to the podium of the Republican National Convention that was on the verge of nominating a moderate ticket of then Eisenhower Vice President Richard Nixon and ex-Massachusetts Senator and then-UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, along with his famous challenge "let's grow up conservatives" Goldwater said something else that was perhaps more significant if not as widely noted. Said Goldwater: "If we want to take this party back… and I think we can someday… let's get to work."

Take this party back.

Back? Yes, back. By which Goldwater meant to the party's undeniably pre-progressive era conservative roots. The party whose very first platform in 1856 began by quoting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, devoting itself to individual rights.

By 1960, not to mention four years later when Goldwater himself defeated the liberal New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller for the nomination, the very idea of the Republican Party returning to its conservative roots caused an uproar. Indeed, there were many progressive Republicans who tried to deny the roots of the GOP had ever been anything but progressive. A distinct untruth that could be resolved simply by reading the party's original platforms in 1856 and 1860, platforms that read in today's context read as if written by a Santorum or Gingrich.

And so, the fight.

WHICH, BY THIS DAY of the 2012 New Hampshire primary, has the GOP once again embroiled in a battle between conservatives and moderates.

In terms of today's personalities, watching John McCain endorse Mitt Romney is like watching Thomas E. Dewey endorse Nelson Rockefeller.

McCain, famously like Dewey -- got clobbered. McCain's zeal for moderation was summarily rejected by Americans who are prone to want the real McCoy in their politicians. Not those whose beliefs could be summarized by simply adding the word "lite" to the name of the Democrats' progressive champion of the moment. The list of conservatives elected to the presidency after the Roosevelt-Taft showdown, when compared to the election or election margin of moderates is stark.

What is the ultimate, trending point here?

What has happened in the last 100 years of this famous war within the Republican Party is that as more and more Americans began to realize the serious flaws of the progressive world view -- its moderate cousin in the Republican Party began to slowly lose its own political blood supply.

If progressivism is deathly sick, moderate Republicanism is dying.

Take a look at the 12 presidential election returns separating that famous 1912 opening battle from 1964 and the rise of the conservative movement. Of those races, moderates were nominated ten times, conservatives twice. Of those ten races with a moderate as the nominee only three -- three! -- resulted in victory. Those three would be Hoover's 1928 run and Eisenhower's 1952 and 1956 victories. The Eisenhower victories, it should be noted, were due in considerable part to the moderate Ike's status as a hero general of World War II. The two conservatives nominated -- Warren Harding in 1920 and Calvin Coolidge in 1924 -- won both their races in a landslide.

This would suggest that as the progressive movement erupted, peaked, and began to level off and finally start a long slow fade in popularity as the bills financially and governmentally came due (continually rising taxes, growing government etc.) -- the popularity of moderate Republicans was fading with it. The popularity of conservatives was always there -- waiting for rediscovery.

Voters to whom liberalism appealed wanted the real deal, not the cheap imitation. Harding and Coolidge, who have received an enormous historical trashing at the hands of liberal historians, were in their day not just popular but popular for a reason: their conservative economic policies brought stunning success, aka: The Roaring Twenties. As moderate Republicans presented themselves as FDR-lite, as candidate Nixon stood on the stage of the TV debates with John Kennedy and said the two were in essential agreement on many issues, voters balked.

At its height of popularity, from roughly the advent of FDR's New Deal in 1932 -- to the beginning of the return of the GOP to its grass roots in the 1960s -- all manner of moderate Republicans flourished at the non-presidential federal level and in statehouses. The names were household in the day: George Norris, Margaret Chase Smith, Earl Warren, Thomas Kuchel, Hugh Scott, Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Percy, Edward Brooke, George Romney (father of Mitt), Mark Hatfield, Arlen Specter and so on with a list that is decidedly incomplete. 

Not only have these people inevitably vanished from the scene for reasons of age, they have gone mostly un-succeeded as moderate ranks have shrunk.

Again, there is a reason.

To take but one instance in my own Pennsylvania, there is a central reason why Pennsylvania's Republican Senator is now the conservative Pat Toomey and not the liberal Arlen Specter. Within the state rank and file, the base of the Pennsylvania GOP itself, the ideas that drove the success of moderates from Gifford Pinchot (yes, the man fired by Taft was twice elected as a Republican moderate governor of Pennsylvania), to William Scranton to Hugh Scott, John Heinz and Tom Ridge are now seen for what they, in fact, always have been. Attempts to make the liberal agenda palatable to Republicans by presenting them with a Republican face.

And as these ideas failed, Republicans in Pennsylvania -- now in the post-Reagan era much more conservative than they were when a Pinchot or Scranton or Specter were representing them -- simply grew weary of moderates. It should be remembered that the central reason Pennsylvania's Senator Arlen Specter switched parties in 2009 was that the GOP base, as reported in one poll after another, had simply had enough of the GOP moderate approach. Realizing defeat loomed within the GOP, Specter switched. Where he was beaten by a Democrat who was much more liberal -- and who lost to Toomey.

SO. WHAT DOES all this mean?

It means that the remaining moderates in the GOP who hope to have a presidential nomination will, if they survive competition for office in their own state, feel pressured to do exactly what Mitt Romney is accused of doing: flip-flopping. They were for abortion before they were against it. They were never Reagan Republicans until they realized the 40th president was in fact a political Sun King. And so on… and so on.

All of which is to say that if Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman ever do wind up as the GOP nominee and win the White House, there will be considerable battles ahead with their own party. When a President Romney says he wants to work with Harry Reid or a President Huntsman says he wants a deal with the Chinese -- the GOP base will be asking: why? Why not victory? Why not push ahead, take defeats if they come, and come back again and again?

And conservatives will say this for one reason, and one reason only.

After 100 years of battle inside the GOP between conservatives and moderates it is apparent to all that the conservatives have won. They won because of the intellectual fire power of their ideas. They won because of sheer persistence. They won because they had Ronald Reagan. And they won because that most basic commodity called political support has simply vanished for the ideas of moderates and "moderation" itself. 

Will there be more skirmishes? Sure. Platform battles may break out at the Tampa Convention. The usual in-fighting in any administration will ruffle feathers if there is a moderate Republican in the Oval Office.

If you're Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman or a future potential GOP nominee who entered the lists initially as in your state as a moderate -- and you seriously wish to be the GOP nominee -- you will be forced to flip-flop.

Why?

Because the bottom line, as they say, is that the Republican Party is now officially America's conservative party. The party of Dewey and Rockefeller, the party of losing moderate nominees from Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 to John McCain in 2008, is in fact now the philosophical home to ideas of Lincoln -- and Reagan.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.