It’s the question no one asks.
It’s the topic everyone is talking about.
What, exactly, is a Republican president anyway?
If the central issue in this election is the role of government — and arguably in one form or another that has been an issue for over a century’s worth of presidential elections (if not all of them) — what is it that Republican presidents have in fact done about it?
What could another one be expected to do?
As the nation focuses on Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s victory in the Iowa Straw Poll, the entry and possible entry of Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin into the race for the White House — and the departure of former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty from it — clearly the question of what a Republican president has been and should be is the question that should be asked.
And in one form or another, it is the not-so-underground passionate topic of every Republican in America.
The other week the discussion here was about an “American Tipping Point.” Is it possible that the same principle is at work with Republican presidents? And was Ronald Reagan that GOP presidential tipping point? The point at which a genuinely conservative president made it that much more difficult for prospective and actual Republican presidents to successfully advocate some version of Big Government Lite or More-Taxes-Just-Not-SoMuch?
Let’s start with the basics.
There have been eighteen Republican presidents of the United States since the formation of the GOP as a political party in 1854. Of the 39 presidential elections between 1856 and 2008, in which the GOP always fielded a candidate, the party’s nominee has won 23 of those 39 elections. Which is to say, well over half of them.
Republican presidents have taken office while young (42), old (68) and middle-aged (a parade of fifty-somethings). All have been men. Some have been commander-in-chief in the midst of tumultuous periods of war, others the head of state in placid eras of peace and prosperity. One, famously, was at the helm when the Great Depression arrived.
So with a political party that has had this much consistent success in electing its nominees since its inception and the competition with Democrats began — a better record than Democrats to the point that it’s reasonable to think of Republican presidencies as the American norm and Democrats in the White House as the occasional exception that proves the rule — why is it that the American people historically prefer Republicans?
Doubtless the answer has to do with some variation of the snappy slogan devised for the very first Republican nominee in 1856:
Free Soil, Free Men, Fremont
John Charles Fremont was perhaps the most celebrated hero of the day. Famous as the dashing explorer and mapper of the Western American continent, it was he who had planted the American flag on the highest peak of the Rocky Mountains, serving as military governor of the California territory and, when it was admitted to the Union, as the new state’s first U.S. Senator. Together with his outgoing and politically astute wife Jessie, the daughter of the powerful Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the glamorous Fremonts captured the American imagination. His biographer Tom Chaffin, whose book Pathfinder is titled with the nickname bestowed on the dazzling young explorer by the tabloid press of the day, notes that Fremont was so popular he was asked by both Democrats and the brand new GOP to be their 1856 nominee.
Fremont chose the Republicans, for the quite specific reason indicated in that slogan. Free Men. He was a fierce opponent of slavery, despising it as both a betrayal of America’s core principles of freedom and equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence — and as an economic betrayal of free markets as well.
In fact, the new party’s slogan in 1856, while it played off of their candidate’s surname, was in fact a slight reshaping of a slogan from one of the founding groups that had banded together to form the Republican Party. That would be the anti-slavery “Free Soil” party, whose 1848 third-party campaign against the Democrats and the Whigs had featured the slogan:
Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men
With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 the principles were put to the severest test imaginable, and they triumphed. Permanently establishing the still young party in the nation’s political mind precisely as its very first 1856 platform — the platform on which Fremont ran — had declared. The key principles were:
• “Restoring the action of the Federal Government to the principles of Washington and Jefferson.”
• “That the maintenance of the principles promulgated in the Declaration of Independence, and embodied in the Federal Constitution are essential to the preservation of our Republican institutions, and that the Federal Constitution, the rights of the States, and the union of the States, must and shall be preserved.”
Additionally, the platform specifically supported the Second Amendment, saying “The right of the people to keep and bear aims has been infringed.” It was tough on crime, strongly supported free speech and fiercely condemned the Democrats’ Franklin Pierce administration, which had presided over the notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act that essentially invited slavery into the territories in violation of the Missouri Compromise, making an inferno of the Kansas territory (“Bloody Kansas”.) Pierce and his party, said the new platform angrily, were guilty of “atrocious outrages.”
The 1856 platform also gave another indicator of the Republican belief in a strong government: it called for what today we would call “infrastructure” spending — specifically back in the 1850s this meant government aid to construct the transcontinental railroad to the Pacific as well as to “improve” rivers and harbors. When Congresswoman Bachmann appeared on Fox News Sunday the day after her triumph and host Chris Wallace asked her about her support for federal aid for transportation, she answered that “one legitimate function of government is to build transportation projects, roads, bridges, interchanges. That is something that government should do.” Fremont and the 1856 platform couldn’t — didn’t — say it any better. Or differently.
Why is this important now, in 2011? Why is what is on the record books about the first coming together of the national Republican Party in 1856 important in the 21st century’s third presidential election — the 40th since the Republican Party’s first national platform and presidential nominee was put forward in 1856?
Because in fact, after the Civil War and the passage by Republicans (over the usual left-wing Democrats’ opposition) of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments that among other things ended slavery, provided blacks with due process and the right to vote — essentially the biggest battles in the Republican Party’s then-young history had been fought and won. Race would remain a battle. Democrats, always race-obsessed, kept at it after Lincoln used Washington’s principles to hold the Union together and ensure the liberty of all America’s citizens. The Left still keeps at it having supported every post-slavery racial “solution” from segregation to lynching to the Ku Klux Klan to today’s racial quotas and opposition to illegal immigration. For but the latest entry in this long sorry chapter see the racial obsessions of one Frank Schaeffer over at the Huffington Post. Or, sadly, this race-card playing from Chris Matthews — who should know better — over at MSNBC.
Notice the subtlety here? Matthews mentions Truman desegregating the military — but oddly neglects to mention that it was Woodrow Wilson who segregated the military (and the federal government) in the first place. Because to do so would lead the obvious admission that Democrats have a terrible record on race and that…Nah. Tempting, but I digress.
War over and amendments and various civil rights bills passed, there was a “what’s next” aspect in the post-Civil War era, and it didn’t take long before that new challenge for Republicans appeared.
That would be, of course, the fight over the role and size of government. The so-called “Progressive Era” was aborning, and Republican presidents were, well, president. What exactly was their role in meeting the challenges of the day as the demands for more and more and still more government began to appear?
Take a look again at that line from the 1856 founding Republican platform. This one:
Restoring the action of the Federal Government to the principles of Washington and Jefferson.
Both Washington and Jefferson believed in a strong federal government, and the first Republicans understood this and agreed, going out of their way to specifically say so.
Contrary to some of the followers of Congressman Ron Paul, Abraham Lincoln’s actions in the Civil War were perfectly consistent with George Washington’s principles. It was, of course, President Washington who responded to the first insurrection against the United States government, this being the so-called “Whiskey Rebellion” in 1791 Western Pennsylvania. The federal government had laid a tax on whiskey through all the legitimate, decidedly constitutional processes of government. Unlike today’s Tea Party, which is opposed to tax increases yet of course still pays their taxes, some Western Pennsylvanians refused to pay. Resentment in what was the American “West” of 1791 — Western Pennsylvania — was running high against the “East” and the new national government in Philadelphia. Violence ensued. Western Pennsylvania became a hotbed of physical rebellion against the infant United States government with tax collectors being seized, stripped naked, and, with heads shaved, clothes burned and horses stolen, literally tarred and feathered before being tied to trees deep in the wilderness.
Washington, a firm believer in strong government, sent in the troops. As a matter of fact, Washington became the only sitting president of the United States to personally take control of troops, leaving the then-capital of Philadelphia to take command. The first president insisted, in terms Lincoln would employ on a larger scale, that if the idea that this or that state or part of a state was allowed to get away with violently dictating a point of view to the rest of the country:
…there is an end put at one stroke to republican government, and nothing but anarchy and confusion is to be expected thereafter; for some other man or society may dislike another law and oppose it with equal propriety until all laws are prostate and everyone (the strongest, I presume) will carve for himself.
Washington’s answer when this kind of situation presented itself? “Employ the force of government.”
Lincoln, loyal precisely to the GOP principles and founding 1856 platform which cited Washington by name, did just what Washington advocated when he, Lincoln, conducted the Civil War. To this day there are those out there in the farther ethers of the Ron Paul camp who busily condemn Lincoln while ignoring the fact that faced with precisely the same circumstance Washington did exactly the same thing. Not to mention these Paulists always seem to try and slide past the fact that the GOP’s formation was in part because of opposition to forced labor — slavery. Extremist Paulist opposition to Lincoln because he used Washington’s clearly stated principles in saving the Union and ending slavery has nothing to do with conservative principle or Republican principle or Washington’s principles. It has everything to do with hard core left-wingism portraying itself as some sort of true constitutionalism, a “constitutionalism” that both Washington himself (not to mention the Declaration of Independence!) emphatically opposed.
Quick: which famous ex-American black slave wrote the following?
…all of a sudden the fateful gate swings quickly open, and four white male hands …grab us by the leg, arm, collar, cap, ear, and drag us in like a sack, and the gate behind us, the gate to our past life, is slammed once and for all.
It was written by Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. The core difference between an American slave in 1856 and a Communist slave in a 20th century gulag was geography and little else.
But there is a world of difference between the Washington, Jefferson (he of the Louisiana Purchase) and Lincoln concept of a strong government with what has become the almost existential 21st century problem of a virtually unlimited government by fiat — fiats issued from any manner of corners in a vast, almost unlimited federal bureaucracy.
So the question recurs.
What is a Republican president? How did some of them specifically, if in retrospect sometimes understandably, get America to the point we find ourselves today? Here’s a quick list, beginning with the post-Civil War GOP presidents, where the confusion of a “strong central government” — Washington’s principle — slowly and not-so-slowly became the massive “Big Government” of today.
• Bureaucracy created by: GOP President Chester A. Arthur — In 1883 Arthur signs the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Designed to rid the U.S. government of the “spoils system” in which political allies are assigned jobs in the federal government. As of this writing, the U.S. Civil Service employs some 3.5 million “civil servants” full or part-time in the 15 executive departments of the government or independent agencies. According to the Washington Post, some 1.1 million of these civil servants are unionized, the two largest unions being the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) These two federal employee unions, along with three others, gave almost $6 million in campaign contributions to Democrats, all from mandatory union dues. Thus, in search of ending the spoils system, Republican President Arthur started America down the path of an even more politicized government work force, its massive membership mandated to pay dues that are overwhelmingly donated by the union leadership to Democrats.
• Bureaucracy created by: GOP President Theodore Roosevelt — In 1903 TR, the first “progressive” president in the new “progressive era,” signed (among other!) legislation creating the Department of Commerce and Labor. He also signed legislation creating the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, creating what would become the renamed Food and Drug Administration in 1930. The FDA bureaucracy is currently under fire for what the Wall Street Journal called the “mugging” of the breast cancer drug Avastin. Said the paper of TR’s bureaucracy and its impact on the lives of American women:
The Avastin mugging is really an attempt to undermine regulatory modernization like accelerated approval that offends the FDA’s institutional culture of control and delay. It is also meant to discourage innovations like Avastin that the political and medical left has decided are too costly, with damaging implications for the next generation of cancer drugs.
One could go at considerable length here with a longer list of examples of Republican presidents who one by one, sometimes with thought deliberate (Roosevelt) or just for plain, old-fashioned political benefit, slowly helped contribute to the building of the Leviathan. Taft separated Labor from Commerce, institutionalizing the Labor Department bureaucracy as a stand-alone. Herbert Hoover established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, pouring fresh federal government money out to state and local governments. Eisenhower created the Department of Health and Welfare, the forerunner of today’s behemoth Department of Health and Human Services. Nixon created the EPA — the hotly controversial Environmental Protection Agency, from which new regulations gush in record numbers from the Obama administration. In addition to signing onto that famously fatal tax increase that eventually helped end his presidency, George H.W. Bush elevated the Veterans Administration to Cabinet status as the Department of Veterans Affairs. And, of course, it was George W. Bush who ginned up the not inconsiderable Medicare Prescription Drug program. Originally estimated to cost $400 billion it is now projected at $549 billion and change within four years. Surprise, surprise.
If all of this (and so much more) has come from Republican presidents, is there any wonder that after Democrats got done with their New Freedom (Wilson), New Deal (FDR), Fair Deal (Truman), New Frontier (JFK), Great Society (LBJ) and Obamacare on top of the “stimulus” (Obama) — America is in debt to the tune of $14.3 trillion (not counting the new debt ceiling rise).
Is there any wonder that Michele Bachmann has sent Tim Pawlenty packing — and that Ron Paul was so close behind in that straw poll?
It was, of course, Ronald Reagan — he who made Washington shudder by proposing (unsuccessfully) abolishing the Department of Education and the Department of Energy — who became the first Republican president to stand athwart this mindset and yell “Stop!” Said Reagan:
The federal government hadn’t created the states; the states had created the federal government. Washington, ignoring principles of the Constitution, was trying to turn the states into nothing more than administrative districts of the federal government. And the path to federal control had, to a large extent, become federal aid. From our schools to our farms, Washington bureaucrats were trying to dictate to Americans what they could or could not do.… Usually with the best of intentions, Congress passed a new program, appropriated the money for it, then assigned bureaucrats in Washington to disperse the money…. In Madison’s words… usurping power from the states by the “gradual and silent encroachment of those in power.”
What is the real battle going on in the fight inside the Republican Party for the 2012 nomination?
It’s between those who want to elect another Republican president — and those who want to elect a conservative president who happens to be a Republican.
Tim Pawlenty (as deftly dissected here by Chris Horner) is out of this race because he accurately portrayed himself as a Republican. Michele Bachmann has won the Iowa Straw Poll because she has accurately portrayed herself as a conservative.
Pawlenty was a nice man who was the latest model Chester Arthur or Theodore Roosevelt or William Howard Taft or Herbert Hoover or Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and the Bushes.
Bachmann has struck a fire because she is Ronald Reagan.
This is something one can’t fake.
She isn’t faking.
And thus far?