Monday, February 13, 2012

"You Republicans" and "We Conservatives"

I was reading last week about the 1940 presidential election for a book I'm working on. Coinciding as it did with Mitt Romney's latest stumble on his way to the Republican nomination, I couldn't help thinking he had a few things in common with the GOP's standard bearer that year, Wendell Willkie.

After being crushed in consecutive elections by FDR, Republicans were desperate for a winner in 1940. Prior to 1932, Republicans were accustomed to winning presidential elections: from 1896 through 1928, they won seven out of nine contests. The only exceptions were 1912 and 1916. In the former, the Republican vote split between the sitting Republican president William Howard Taft and former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, delivering the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson who got just 41.8% of the popular vote. Four years later, Wilson eked out a narrow re-election victory.

In short, Republicans had come to feel the presidency really belonged to them before FDR. Going into the 1940 campaign, they had two reasons to hope for a comeback: 1) FDR might not be a candidate, because of the two-term tradition; and 2) though the economy was much improved from the depths of the depression in 1932, it was nowhere near true recovery (unemployment was down from 25% to between 14 and 15%).

The problem for the Republicans was that they had not come to any consensus about their way forward as a party. Should they hold onto the low-tax, laissez-faire approach (which many Americans still blamed for the depression) and fight for repeal of the entire New Deal, or reconcile themselves to a "New Deal Lite" policy that merely promised to manage the new social welfare programs better?

As a result, the Republican convention was torn in 1940, needing six ballots to settle at last on a nominee: corporate lawyer and businessman Wendell Willkie. 

Willkie was an odd choice. He had never held elective office. He had been a delegate to the 1932 Democratic convention. 

That fact alone made him highly suspect to many Republicans (and reminds one of Romney's vote in the 1992 Democratic primary, as well as his past claims to be a "moderate" with "progressive" policies).  

One former Republican senator had this reaction to the thought of this former Democrat getting the GOP nomination:
If a whore repented and wanted to join the church, I'd personally welcome her and lead her up the aisle to a pew. But, by the Eternal, I'd not ask her to lead the choir the first night.
Yet this convert bested elected Republican officials like Senators Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg, because the business wing of the party and the liberal eastern establishment supported his nomination--because they thought they could control him.

But when it came time to speak to the convention, Willkie slipped. As he finished his acceptance speech, he said:
And so, you Republicans, I call upon you to join me, help me. The cause is great. We must win.
That phrase was the tell: "you Republicans." Willkie had given away the game. Deep down, he didn't really consider himself a Republican.

I couldn't help but think of that phrase when I heard Mitt Romney at CPAC on Friday repeatedly say things like "we, as conservatives ..." He used some form of the word "conservative" over twenty times. He was so intent to avoid pulling a Willkie, that he repeatedly did the anti-Willkie.

The effect, however, was much the same. He was so desperate to say that he is a conservative that he undermined the case that he is one.

There are, of course, many differences between Willkie and Romney, but some of the parallels are telling.

One is the absence of ideological clarity, the focus (in both cases) on "electability."

In 1940, Willkie got the nomination because enough Republicans feared that a real Republican, someone too much like Herbert Hoover, would lose. Though they would have been loathe to admit it openly, they recognized that things like Social Security had been accepted by the public. More importantly, the public had also largely accepted the general idea that the federal government should have a role in managing the economy and mitigating the wild swings of the unregulated market. Willkie would not be a hard-edged ideologue, he would win over disgruntled Democrats, he could win.

As I have noted recently, many of today's Republicans also seem more concerned with defeating President Obama than deciding what exactly the party's principles should be. While they are united in pledging to abolish what they call "Obamacare," you'll rarely hear them say that they want to go back to allowing insurance companies to refuse to insure people with pre-existing conditions, or that they want to throw children under 26 off their parents' policies. They rail against the individual mandate, but can't agree on why they do. What they all agree on is that they want to beat Obama, and will support whoever seems most likely to do that.

Second, in both cases, the party looked to a businessman, someone who had not served politically in Washington, someone who claimed expertise as a manager and executive who could run things more efficiently.

As David Kennedy notes in Freedom From Fear, Willkie was "a leading spokesman for those in the business community who felt themselves aggrieved by the New Deal." He would restore a pro-business climate. Willkie did not explicitly reject the New Deal, but he "denounced the Democrats as having acquired vested political interest in the Depression and therefore as having willfully throttled the wealth-making and job-creating potential of private enterprise." 

It takes little imagination to hear Romney saying precisely that about Obama. While Romney served as a governor (and was, as he told CPAC, a "severely conservative" one), his campaign has focused overwhelmingly on his private sector experience in a way that emphasizes pragmatic management more than ideology.

One major difference, however, would be foreign policy.

In 1940, most of the other Republican candidates for president were from the isolationist wing of the party. Though most Americans remained determined to avoid direct involvement in the war, they supported FDR's efforts to aid Britain short of war. So did Willkie.

Willkie even went so far as refusing to exploit foreign policy in the campaign. When FDR decided to send 50 old destroyers to Britain in early September 1940, Willkie did not make an issue of it. When two weeks later the administration supported a peace-time draft, Willkie was told that opposing it would help him politically. But he favored it. Willkie replied, "I'd rather not win the election than do that."

I'd like to think that, if the issue were important enough, Romney would say the same. But given his rank opportunism and foreign policy demagoguery so far in this campaign, I can't say I'm confident he would.

(To be fair, even Willkie, in his desperation late in the campaign, called the destroyers-for-bases deal "the most dictatorial act ever taken by an American president," and dabbled in some FDR-as-war-monger rhetoric.)

In the end, Willkie lost. That was most likely because, with the world in flames, most Americans wanted FDR's experienced hand on the wheel. But that's not how Republican conservatives saw it.

Historian Richard Ketchum says that for "twenty-four years the resentment would fester, the schism would be unresolved."  At the 1964 convention, 
Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen rose on the floor ..., pointed a finger at the New York and Pennsylvania delegations, led by Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton, and shouted at those reminders of Wendell Willkie: 'You led us down the road to defeat ...' And at last the Old Guard chose one of its own, Barry Goldwater, only to see him crushed in the worst defeat in any presidential election to that time.
If Romney gets this nomination and loses in the fall, it won't take 24 years. In four years, the Tea Party and conservative wing will likely say "You led us down the road to defeat" to the establishment, and chose one of its own.

If that happens, the big, historic question will be this: will that nominee end up being Goldwater in 1964, or Reagan in 1980?

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