The GOP's Resilience Is Time-Tested

The GOP's Resilience Is Time-Tested
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A party in turmoil.  Extreme inner divisions.  Name calling. Disastrous speeches. A rogue front-runner. Physical violence. A surprisingly popular socialist opponent. Plots to reclaim party unity at the convention.  Although these are all components of the current Republican race for the presidential nomination, they were also integral aspects of GOP campaigns in the past.

Dire predictions are on the rise that the party is on the eve of destruction due to unprecedented disunion.  History demonstrates, however, that the GOP has weathered a series of cataclysmic campaigns and elections and can pull through once more.

In 1912 the party was in crisis.  Like today, the standard-bearers had lost their appeal. The incumbent, William Howard Taft, had proved a disappointment to many, most notably his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt. The still wildly popular former president went back on his promise not to seek a third term. Roosevelt, like Donald Trump, counted heavily on his personal magnetism. He announced in bombastic language that even The Donald would envy: “My hat's in the ring. The fight is on and I'm stripped to the buff.”

As in the current race, there were already a lot of hats in that ring:  Taft’s, of course, as well as that of Robert La Follette.  The Wisconsin senator, having put in his time as Republican leader in the trenches (not unlike Jeb Bush and John Kasich), believed himself to be the logical choice.  

A fourth hat belonged to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. Like Hillary Clinton, Wilson had the support of his party’s mainstream.  Rounding out the ring was socialist Eugene V. Debs, who, like Bernie Sanders, proved to be unexpectedly popular. Debs would ultimately earn nearly 6 percent of the popular vote.

The specter of Roosevelt as a destroyer of party unity was greatly feared, just as Trump is today. Yet La Follette, reminiscent of many of the participants in recent GOP debates, unintentionally gave the former president’s candidacy a huge boost by way of a particularly aggressive and boorish speech.

Today’s Republican candidates also do not hold the monopoly on mudslinging.  La Follette called Roosevelt “an inconsequential playboy.” Roosevelt countered that La Follette was “half zealot and half self-seeking demagogue.” Taft charged that Roosevelt was the demagogue, adding that he was also an “egoist.”  Roosevelt’s attacks his opponent escalated from “a flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and common in him” to calling the sitting president of the United States a “puzzle wit” and a “fathead.”

Some Republicans hope that the nomination can be wrested from Trump at the convention, a ploy that failed for Roosevelt supporters in 1912. The former president protested what he deemed Taft’s fraudulently credentialed delegates to the Republican convention, held in Illinois. He termed the incumbent’s nomination “The Chicago Steal.”

The 2016 campaign may yet take the path forged in 1912. Refusing to acknowledge defeat, Roosevelt created his own Progressive Party, popularly known as the Bull Moose (drawn from Roosevelt’s characteristically vigorous declaration, “I feel as fit as a bull moose.”)  That fitness was tested in October when violence, which has threatened the current campaign, was dramatically manifested. Roosevelt was shot in the chest on the way to a campaign stop. Announcing, “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose,” Roosevelt insisted on delivering his speech of almost an hour before allowing aides to take him to the hospital.

Republicans were torn between their loyalty to the incumbent and their admiration for the Bull Moose.  Their split vote contributed to Wilson’s easy win.  Despite many dire predictions, the devastating blow to Republican unity inflicted by the presidential race of 1912 was not lethal to the party.  Wilson’s two terms allowed the shattered party to find sufficient common ground to reclaim the presidency with Ohio Republican Warren G. Harding in 1921.

The GOP has a long history of remarkable tenacity despite divisive campaigns, even ones as factious as the current election.

Nancy C. Unger is a professor of history at Santa Clara University.  Her books include “Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer,” and the newly released “Belle La Follette: Progressive Reformer.”

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