The Spectacle Blog

Shadegg and the Spirit of 1888

By on 1.16.06 | 1:38PM

Let the balloting go on and on and on for the leadership posts in the GOP on February 2. Five ballots at least, perhaps a dozen: let the haranguing and back-stair deals climb and climb. Why? Because a secret ballot and the release of all pledges by the second ballot ensures that the best man will win out on the basis of his vision, his temper, his nerve.

Look at the example of the surprisingly spirited 1888 Republican National Convention at Chicago, long before the so-called state primary contests -- which are truly national media gabfests voted upon by a fraction of the party in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other small states -- had made the delegates irrelevant. The 1888 delegates arrived in need of a candidate to go up against the strangely protectionist and obstuse incumbent Grover Cleveland, who had beaten the railroad machine candidate of James G. Blaine in 1884 after the infamous "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion" quote late in the contest.

The Party needed a fresh face and a clean sweep of the railroaders who bought and overbought Congress and the executive departments. Senator John Sherman of Ohio, iconoclastic brother of the infamous and endlessly quotable W.T. Sherman, was the clear leader for the nomination as the delegates arrived in mid June in torrid, capitalist Chicago. His closest rivals were Postmaster W.Q. Gresham of Indiana, a Union Army war hero at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Atlanta, and Chanuncey Depew of New York, the railroad potentate famous for his quip, "I get my exercise by acting as pallbearer to my friends who exercise." Needed for majority was 416, but in the first and second and third ballots the most Sherman could win were 244. Meantime, Gresham peaked at 123 and Depew at 99. The first day's voting ended with loud meetings over beef and beer along Michigan Avenue. Sometime overnight, in smoke-filled dens where elder gentlemen contemplate eternity and cash, the magnificently secure Depew withdrew.

Little noticed on the first day, but much ballyhooed on the second, were the booms for the cavalry hero Senator Russell A. Alger of Michigan and the unassuming Hoosier former Senator Benjamin Harrison of Indiana. On the fourth and fifth ballots on Saturday June 23, Alger and Harrison climbed in the count to 142 and 213 respectively, while Sherman was stuck at 224 and Gresham was sinking. The trend was in place. On the third day the delegates broke for the grandson of a president and son of a congressman. Harrison went over the top with 544 and defeated Cleveland in November.

Just this tempestuous a scenario would deliver a revolutionary awakening for the GOP leadership. Let the earmarked bulls battle between machine candidate Blunt and non-threatening non-machine candidate Boehner on the first ballot. Let one of them drop out. The released delegates will break for Shadegg -- or perhaps the possibility of a new name nominated from the floor, such as the kingmaker behind Shadegg, Mike Pence of Indiana, a quiet Hoosier like Harrison, once upon a time.

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