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The Big Election of ’12

Big election coming up later this year, I hear. Don’t want to get into that yet; let’s wait till the Republicans choose between Sick Rick and Ragged Mitt, though Mr. Remove-Silver-Spoon-and-Insert-Foot seems to have it locked up. Tonight’s results could spell the end for Rick, though the grossly self-righteous never seem to go away quietly.

No, today the History Nerd wants to look back to another big election, one from a century ago that at least one historian thinks changed America. The election of 1912 featured some heavy hitters, the caliber of which makes the current crop look like Doug Wilson and his cohorts in Agrestic (yes, I’ve been rewatching early seasons of Weeds).

The 1912 election was the only time in our history that three men who had or would sit in the Oval Office faced each other: the incumbent William “Big Boy” Howard Taft, former president Teddy “Manly Man” Roosevelt, and soon-to-be pres Woodrow “What, me racist?” Wilson. And there was even a fourth candidate of renown (or to some, infamy): Eugene “You Don’t Know Nothin’ from Socialist” Debs.

Perhaps even more amazing, the field included a progressive Republican. Imagine that, a time when that expression was not an oxymoron. Hard to believe given how this year’s GOP presidential hopefuls seem to covet the label “Neanderthal” (and with apologies to Neanderthals everywhere with that crack).

Now that's a globe!

Here was the scenario: Roosevelt had served from 1901 through 1908, earning a reputation as a “trust-buster,” a progressive who wanted to conserve public lands, who said “corporations engaged in interstate commerce should be regulated if they are found to exercise a license working to the public injury.” Of course, TR was immediately branded a socialist by the right wing of his part—no, actually, not. While Roosevelt wanted to control corporate excess, he was still a capitalist, still had respect for the “strong and forceful men upon whom the success of business operations inevitably rests.” And he was a devout imperialist, always ready to swing that big stick.

Man, I just wanna be on the Supreme Court...

Taft, a one-time friend of Roosevelt, was a reluctant presidential candidate in 1908, running more to appease his wife than satisfy an urge to wield power. Ironically, while historian James Chace, author of the book 1912 considers Taft a “moderate conservative,”  he busted more trusts in four years than TR did in eight. Chace (who discusses his book here) also calls Taft “an extremely decent man,” a decency I’d like to think was shaped by his Unitarian faith. Given the dogma-less, pagan-accepting church the Unitarian-Universalist body is today, could a 21st-century UU even think of running for president? And isn’t it sad to think that belonging to a congregation with such deep historical roots in America and with such a tolerant, loving nature means you couldn’t get elected in a political climate that seems to thrive on religious litmus tests of all kinds?

Moderate conservative that he was, Taft was not progressive enough for Roosevelt, who also had a stronger hunger for executive prerogative than Taft. TR ran for the Republican nomination, lost it at what he and his supporters thought was a rigged convention, then joined the Progressive Party, which was soon known as the Bull Moose Party . The nickname came after TR compared himself to that hardy creature. The name seemed particularly apt when Roosevelt was shot while on his way to deliver a campaign speech. The fifty pages of the speech, tucked into his pocket, slowed the bullet somewhat (let’s see a Teleprompter do that), though it still entered his lung. Roosevelt gave the speech and then went to the hospital. During his two-week recovery, the other candidates refrained from campaigning. Would today’s candidates extend the same courtesy? Perhaps, but of course they could count on the Super PACs to keep doing their dirty work.

What were some of the wacky tenets of the Progressive Party? Well, its platform spelled out some of the lunacy pretty clearly: “The Progressive party, believing that no people can justly claim to be a true democracy which denies political rights on account of sex, pledges itself to the task of securing equal suffrage to men and women alike.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, sometimes it seems a few modern-day Repubs rue that. And TR also wanted “the fixing of minimum safety and health standards for the various occupations, and the exercise of the public authority of State and Nation, including the Federal Control over interstate commerce, and the taxing power, to maintain such standards.” Talk about a Republican turncoat! And then there was this: “The protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use.” Sounds like the germ of Social Security and—dare we say it—national health care. Why, if that had happened back then, we’d be like a Third World nation by now. Oh, wait, with the growing disparity in wealth between the top and the bottom classes, we are like a Third World nation…

Back when a Southerner was proud to be progressive.

Then there was Wilson, the former president of Princeton, a historian, the governor of New Jersey. He had some progressive bona fides, thanks to his efforts to clean up corruption in NJ. But he was also, as Chace bluntly says, a Southern white supremacist. In later decades, post-Nixon, he might have been one of the many Southern Democrats who turned Republican. Whatever his party, Wilson was by all accounts prickly and stubborn. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he could also be holier-than-thou—but not so holy as to refrain from a marital affair. In another instance of “Could this happen today?” TR knew about the indiscretion and did not use it against his opponent.

Debs snagged 900k votes in 1912.

Debs, of course, was sorta the Ron Paul of his day, though with a decidedly different ideological bent. He had no chance in hell of winning, though he had a small number of devoted supporters (in sheer numbers, Paul probably has more, but of course the electorate was much smaller then). Chace sees Debs as more of a pro-worker union organizer than a full-blown Marxist. Starting in 1900 he ran for president five times as a socialist, the last one, famously, while in jail for protesting America’ involvement in WWI.

So, take a step back and see what we have: Four candidates more liberal, in some ways, than the last two Democratic presidents, and certainly more liberal than any Republican since then. These men ran at a time when people could challenge the power of corporations and not be seen to be seeking “to destroy America.” It seems so distant and fairy-tale like…

The outcome of the election was not too surprising. With basically two Republicans running, they split their party’s vote and Wilson won. Taft actually came in third in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. And the true importance of the election was perhaps showing that progressive ideas had a home in American government, even if the Progressives didn’t win. Chace says the election set the tone for the rest of the century, with progressive idealism taking on conservative values.

Never again, I reckon, will we see a Republican who champions the progressive. Instead, we get Republicans who are reactionary, not merely conservative. I can’t imagine what TR or even Taft would think of what has become of the GOP. We’ll see what becomes of it after this ’12 election.

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  1. David Wolf
    April 26, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Don’t write off progressive Republicans yet. We may be in eclipse, but we are getting ready to take the party back after the reactionary right once again demonstrates that it is unable to win elections.

    • mburgan
      April 26, 2012 at 12:28 pm

      David, I sincerely wish you and the other progressive Republicans the best of luck. My home state of CT was (still is?) the center of moderate/progressive Republicanism; hell, I even voted for Lowell Weicker over Lieberman, back in the day. And thanks for the repost.

  2. David Wolf
    April 26, 2012 at 10:43 am

    Reblogged this on The Pacific Bull Moose and commented:
    A nostalgic look at the election of 1912, arguably the birth of the Bull Moose faction of the Republican Party, and proof that the answer is not starting a third party, but taking back our own (attention: John Huntsman!)

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