Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Hundred Year GOP War

Centennial of first conservative-moderate GOP presidential fight -- a final winner in 2012?



Once upon a time… a long, long, loooonnnnnnnnng time ago in a political galaxy far away… the fight between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich began.

Specifically, it was 1912 -- a long 100 years ago -- when Republicans William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt launched the first intra-Republican Party war between conservatives and moderates. Or, as TR self-styled the latter, "progressives."

That first fight was a doozy. A battle royal pitting one-time best friends Taft and TR, sitting president and popular ex-president -- in a clamorous, knock-down, drag out fight. The fight ended a friendship, split the Republican Party, and, in the fall, with both men on the ballot -- Taft as the GOP nominee and TR as the candidate of the newly-created "Progressive Party" -- it ended with neither man winning, the country putting Democrat Woodrow Wilson into the White House.

The Taft-Roosevelt fight also launched what might now be officially called the Republican Party's "Hundred Year War."

With New Hampshire primary voters going to the polls today -- and the New Hampshire primary didn't come into being until 1916, four years after the Taft-TR battle -- it would be a mistake to look at today's battle between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich in isolation.

What America is really seeing here is the latest and perhaps most telling battle yet in a 100-year GOP war over the direction of the party. A party that some New Hampshire Republicans like to insist was born in New Hampshire -- Exeter, specifically -- at the instigation of prominent local lawyer and Abraham Lincoln friend Amos Tuck. (Tuck's initial meeting never took off and the usual nod for the birthplace of the GOP goes to Ripon, Wisconsin.)

Along the way this century-long conservative versus GOP moderates/progressives squabble has produced some other notable knock-down-drag-outs, notably including:

1952 -- Taft versus Eisenhower
1964 -- Goldwater versus Rockefeller
1976 -- Reagan versus Ford
1980 -- Reagan versus Bush

And yes, before and after those specific fights in this 100-year war there were other variations on the theme. The 1920s paired conservatives Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge after rejecting progressives General Leonard Wood (leading the TR progressives) and Frank Lowden, the progressive Governor of Illinois. Another GOP progressive, who lost that 1920 nomination, won the 1928 nomination and the election -- Herbert Hoover. The 1940s saw Ohio's conservative Senator Robert Taft battling -- and losing -- nominations to moderates Wendell Willkie and Thomas E. Dewey. Nineteen Sixty-eight had the new conservative Governor Reagan of California making a last minute go against moderates Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. Conservative Jack Kemp took on Reagan's moderate Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Pat Buchanan went after the incumbent President Bush in 1992, and entered the lists again in 1996 along with Steve Forbes and Pat Robertson, all losing to the moderate Bob Dole. The year 2000 produced a battle between two moderates -- with John McCain trying successfully to make himself the more left-leaning of the two -- and losing to Texas Governor George W. Bush. McCain carried the day in 2008 against fellow moderates Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani, conservative Fred Thompson, and libertarian Ron Paul.

Which brings us to the current stand-off between the moderate Mitt Romney and conservative Rick Santorum and -- yes, in spite of his critics -- the essentially Reagan conservative Newt Gingrich.

BUT STEP BACK. Forget the personalities here. Take a long look at this 100-year war and what does it say?

At its beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the progressive movement was ascendant. The idea of using the federal government to right some real or imagined public woe was relatively new and riding high. The 1912 fight had been prefaced by the almost eight-year presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and his increasingly progressive "Square Deal." In the words of the star progressive journalist of the day, Ray Stannard Baker, progressivism was "a deep-rooted, far-determined, slow-growing movement of the whole people." And so, arguably, it was.

William Howard Taft was what some would now call a conservative, but in fact he wasn't really. Not in the sense that conservatives are thought of today.

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