10/30/2008 08:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Republican Collapse: 100 Years In The Making

Even amid the stressful heat of the campaign, the candidate could not escape the obvious. "The Republican party needs the discipline of defeat," William Howard Taft told a friend in 1912, near the end of his one term as president.
Taft had been challenged by his predecessor and political godfather, Theodore Roosevelt. Their quarrel focused on the definition of Original Sin of the Republican Party: whether and how much government should regulate business.
The argument is at least 100 years old, beginning when T.R. left the White House. Many Republicans were glad to see him go because he was, like John McCain, a maverick. Then, 100 Septembers later, Capitalism As We Know It collapsed. The most prominent political victim was not McCain. A maverick is by definition unbranded, so the heaviest damage was inflicted on the Republican brand.
McCain was never the favorite son of conservative consultants and commentators not because of his economic views, but because of his maverick status. Reacting to the Wall Street collapse, he used a word his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, might have used, a word beginning in G and ending in REED. An ominous silence ensued; greed is not a word used in polite Republican society.
In 1908, T.R.'s final year as president, Republicans had gained a reputation for keeping the promise he made in 1901: "We demand that big business give people a square deal." Roosevelt denounced "malefactors of great wealth." He attacked "the men of wealth who today are trying to prevent the regulation and control of their business." Roosevelt predicted that they "will not succeed," but added, "if they did succeed, they would find that they had sown the wind and would surely reap the whirlwind." Does that not describe the ruins of deregulation in today's economy?
Often interwoven with cultural issues, deregulation has roiled the GOP for a century. In the 1940s and 1950s, it divided the disciples of Taft's son, Sen. Robert Taft, from the apostles of Thomas Dewey and Dwight Eisenhower. The feud between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller dominated the 1960s.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan united the party when he declared "Government is the problem." Today, as graven images of the Great God Marketplace litter Wall Street, Republicans may miss Teddy Roosevelt, McCain's hero, but not his role model. The senator's frequent praise of deregulation makes him a Taft Republican.
Since mid-September, the Karl Rove junior varsity, McCain's handlers, have discouraged talk of greed. Instead, they have dug into their tactic-of-the-day satchel for substitutes, each less credible than the next. Socialism? That won't fly because of the looming presence of the tallest, busiest socialist on the planet, Henry Paulson, commissar and chief teller for the Socialist Banking Group of North America. (Secretary of the Treasury is his honorific title.)
The GOP propaganda machine, humming efficiently for decades, is now beginning to gasp and sputter. It took a bumpy detour when its leading radio-television troubadours insisted that illegal immigrants were wrecking the economy. But no prominent Mexicans were discovered in the vaults of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG. The juggernaut blew a gasket trying to convert Sarah Palin into a combination of Margaret Thatcher and Madame Curie. Now it is in reverse gear, trying to blame Democrats for the Wall Street collapse. The road is rough.
Since 1854, the Republican Party's leaders, some great and some not, have pulled it out of the ditch. William Howard Taft could not do so in 1912. He carried just two states, Roosevelt won five and Woodrow Wilson won the presidency. Taft, who later became chief justice, had a large stomach, which had little room for politics. He told his wife in 1906, "Politics, when I am in it, makes me sick." Some Republicans today might echo that remark, as well as Taft's wise prescription for "the discipline of defeat."