The Great Political Party Tango

10/22/2010 02:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The framers of the Constitution did not anticipate political parties. George Washington warned against them in his farewell address. But by the time John Adams took the oath of office as our second president, the two-party system was well on its way to becoming a permanent feature of the American landscape.

Many things distinguished the Federalists from the Democratic-Republicans, reflecting traits of their first leaders, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson: views on how to run the economy, the role of government, immigration, race relations, and more. But as much as the parties differed on matters of policy, they also sharply differed in how they resolved intra-party issues.

Like Hamilton, the Federalists had their discussions out in the open. They were frank, contentious, and often brutal, sometimes treating each other more harshly than the opposing party.

Like Jefferson, the Democratic-Republicans settled their differences behind closed doors. The politics may have been just as contentious and brutal as with the Federalists, but the public only saw a united front.

Both styles have their advantages and drawbacks. Their open style gave the Federalists power far beyond their actual numbers in the electorate, making them attractive to disparate constituencies from businessmen and professionals to skilled labor to immigrants. The sense of unity gave the Democratic-Republicans a solid appeal to farmers and landowners, from small family holdings to great plantations.

The original two parties faded in the 1820s, but new parties took their place. Jackson's Democrats became the heir to Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans; the Whigs claimed many of the same constituencies that previously supported the Federalists. Jackson's Democrats also inherited Jefferson's penchant for party discipline and settling party issues out of the public eye. The Whigs similarly inherited the Federalists' raucous methods of managing the party.

In the run-up to the Civil War, the Whig party fractured over the issue of abolition of slavery, and the Republican party emerged, with Lincoln as its most eloquent spokesman and ultimately successful candidate. The then-new Republican party continued the heritage from the Whigs and the Federalists of being the inclusive party with messy internal methods.

The Democratic party also split, fractured by the issue of secession versus union. Lincoln won the election of 1860 with barely 40% of the popular vote and the slimmest possible margin in the Electoral College. Not an auspicious beginning for the President regarded by many as our finest.

The notion of the Republican party as a "big tent" comes from the forty years between the Civil War and Teddy Roosevelt. The Republicans were the more diverse, more messy party; the Democrats were more disciplined, inventing "machine" politics in those years.

The party regular backers of William McKinley thought they achieved a real coup by getting TR as vice president, putting the nominal leader of the Progressive wing of their party into the political wilderness that is our second-ranking executive office. They didn't plan on the assassin's bullet that put TR and the Progressives in the White House.

The 1912 election began a huge change in the composition and identity of the two parties. Progressives left the Republican Party to support Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" third party. But the split in the Republican party let Woodrow Wilson, a more urban and centrist Democrat that much of his party, slip into the White House. By the 1916 election, the Progressive movement shed its third party identity and became part of the Democratic party, where it lives to this day.

With the Progressives, the Democrats absorbed the Hamilton-Federalist-Whig-early-Republican DNA for open management of the party. With the nomination of FDR in 1932, the change was complete.

At the same time, the Republicans became more narrowly focused on business and farm constituencies. Without as big a tent to try to manage, Republicans could be more orderly in the conduct of party affairs.

And the party traits endured for the last eighty-plus years: Democrats run their party in the messy open; Republicans run their party behind closed doors with a united outer front. Hardly anyone alive today is old enough to have been a voter when the parties changed roles.

Until now, maybe.

With stinging defeats in 2006 and 2008, the Republican party seems to agree on only one thing: oppose Obama, regardless of prior positions, logic, or even the good of the country. But behind the tactical unity, the Republican party provides a spectacular, very public show of insurgency. Loosely labeled the Tea Party, the insurgents actually have a wide range of interests, principles, and grievances, both with the Republican party and the opposition. The media hasn't figured it out, but then neither has the party, or the membership. But it's loud, it's messy, and it's very public. Great copy. Great video. Sort of like, um, the Democrats of the last 80 years - or the Federalists, or the Whigs.

For the Democrats, the issue is who will Obama appoint as his senior staff and cabinet turn from the legislative successes and electoral problems of 2010 to the harder governing environment of the 112th Congress and the 2012 re-election effort. The decisions will be made outside the glare of a public process. It will be orderly and disciplined. Sort of like, um, the Republicans and the heritage of Jefferson.

Whether Obama's preparation for his next two - or six - years proves successful or not remains to be seen. But it is the other side of the political tango, as the parties exchange roles on one of the key traits than defines our two-party system.

History buffs, take note: the odds are you won't see anything like this again even if you live to be 100.