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Robert Slayton Headshot

Republican Chances in 2012

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I've been thinking about the golden age of Republican politics and what made it so successful.

No, not the Reagan era. Those eight years were followed by a mixed legacy. According to one scholarly biography of George H. W. Bush, the gipper's successor had extremely mixed feelings about the old man, as did his staff. Contact between the two groups was rare and infrequent. And while some of his actions were in the Reagan mold -- a muscular foreign policy, for example -- others were in direct opposition to Reagan's small government credo, such as Bush's strong support for the Americans with Disabilities Act. After 41, as he is sometimes referred to, came eight years of the Democrat Bill Clinton, then two terms of Reagan's true successor, Bush 43. Followed by Barack Obama. Not exactly an unchallenged mandate.

Instead I'm talking about the GOP's real glory years, from 1896 to 1932. Throughout those multiple decades, the Republicans ruled the White House; the sole Democrat was two-term Woodrow Wilson, from 1912-1920.

Even more important was their cultural dominance. If you were middle class, if you were a real American -- it was just part of the package that you voted Republican. Democrats held on with the solid, racist South, and with some of the immigrant cities, both suspect zones to traditionalists. This was the era when America was, to a greater extent than ever before or since, a Republican country.

Before tackling how they pulled this off, and what it means for today's politics, an observation on our country's political structure.

America has a two-party system, rather than a multiparty structure. In the latter, the party with the lead -- a plurality, not a majority -- is asked to form a coalition with others. But each party maintains a clear and sharp identity, a single ideology and platform. The horse trading only comes later, when they try and work with similar entities.

In America, on the other hand, with only a pair of parties, one of them has to win a majority. In order to do this, both of them have to be broadbased, not purist, if they expect to win.
So what was the winning coalition like when Republicans ruled the roost? And keep in mind that it had to be just that, an amalgam of different factions that came together for victory.

Many of the components are still stalwarts of the modern-day party. Elites were more likely to be Republican (with some notable exceptions), as was the business community. And as noted, there was the broad sweep of middle class voters, geographically widespread.

But there was one other sector, and that was the powerful bloc of Republican progressives. Long gone, in the golden years they were a critical element to the party's strength.

The most famous example of a progressive Republican was Teddy Roosevelt. Though a true conservative in many regards (at Harvard he hesitated to makes friends because he did not know the genealogy of his classmates), he also recognized the social ills of his America, and did not hesitate to mobilize a powerful federal presence to deal with them. During the 1902 coal strike, when private property in the form of mine owners refused to even meet with labor, Teddy declared that he would literally mobilize the U.S. Army to work the mines if they didn't change their tune.

The power of Republican liberals could also sway presidential elections. In 1912 the party nominated a stand pat conservative, William Taft. Teddy broke, and carried his Republican supporters into a new entity, actually named the Progressive Party. That year the Democrat beat a divided Republican field, but the upstart Roosevelt and his liberal Republican compatriots came in second, far, far ahead of the official party and its standard bearer.

Teddy wasn't alone, by far, during these years. The Midwest, harkening back to its feisty years of farmer's revolt, steadily elected progressive, Republican champions. George Norris was first congressman and then five-term senator from Nebraska. Not until his last stint in that body did he break with the party of Lincoln and run as an independent; prior to that he was on the GOP ticket. Yet Norris was a passionate defender of the rights of labor, led the investigation into his own party's corruption during the Teapot Dome scandal, and championed the Tennessee Valley Authority as a government entity competing with private power companies.

What does this tell us about 2012? Many analysts argue that a successful Republican candidate has to pull in both economic and social conservatives. But this ignores the third leg of the stool, the large segment of independent voters who would consider themselves Republicans, but not extremists. Many of these are descendants of the progressive faction of old, and may decide who wins or loses next year.

Right now the Republicans are galvanized by a segment of the party that joyfully excludes any viewpoint that does not live up to their ideological standard, behind the slogan RINO (Republicans in Name Only). That energy may be useful right now, but it will be fatal in 2012. If the Republicans hope to win, they have to broaden their appeal to bring in the descendants of Teddy Roosevelt's and George Norris' supporters, to restore the diverse party of their glory years. If they don't move in that direction, they can count on four more years of an Obama presidency.