Saturday, May 26, 2018
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David Shribman

2012 election echoes century-old contest

There was a discredited president, distrusted by his own party, portrayed by even his allies as a disappointing underachiever.

There was an eastern governor, decorated with breathtaking academic credentials and a star turn in the nonprofit sector, mounting a serious challenge.

There was the threat of minor-party candidacies, with charismatic leadership and a core of devoted supporters who could skew the contest.

It was perhaps the greatest election in American history. It was exactly a century ago.

That year, 1912, stands as a hinge in American history. It was when Republicans reverted from their new identity as the party of reformers to being the party of business. It was when Democrats transformed themselves from outsider social critics to insider social activists.

It was when questions about the character of capitalism filled the air, and when the power and limits of personality in politics were glimpsed.

This election in 2012 has strong echoes of 1912. The Republican Party is holding a remarkable, completely unexpected seminar, perhaps even a public hearing, about the capacities and dangers of capitalism -- and about the capacities and dangers of government regulation.

It has been great sport to argue that this year's early political contests have been dominated by farcical characters. But no one can plausibly argue that the contests themselves have been about peripheral issues. These are the bedrock questions of a democracy and of a mature economy.

Such were the issues a century ago, when President William Howard Taft veered from the one true progressive, reformist religion of the GOP predecessor who hand-picked him, Theodore Roosevelt.

Both Taft and Roosevelt were important departures from the Republican presidents who preceded them, smaller men such as William McKinley and Chester Arthur, and from the Republican presidents who would succeed them, commerce-oriented men such as Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover.

Roosevelt was so alienated from his onetime protege that he broke, like a bull moose, from the Republican Party he had transformed and mounted an independent candidacy.

The Democratic nominee was the misty-eyed idealist from Princeton, Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the greatest reformer to cling to the odious racial values of the segregated South.

Also on the ballot was Eugene Debs, who had played a cameo role in many of the signal struggles of the time and would later help to form the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies. He would draw almost 1 million votes.

"Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson invented the activist modern presidency," Bard College political scientist James Chace wrote in the authoritative account of the 1912 election. "TR's commitment to use Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends was not unlike Wilson's use of executive power to promote free competition that would prevent big business from stifling local economies. Their legacy was the use of centralized power to create greater democracy."

In the wake of the bruising Florida primary, the very existence of centralized power and the definition of greater democracy once again are at the heart of American politics.

President Obama remains firmly in the Theodore Roosevelt camp. Though the President disavows "a view that says we should punish profit or success or pretend that government knows how to fix all society's problems,'' he believes in a large regulatory role in American commerce.

And although Republicans are engaged in a vital debate about business and responsibility, the prevailing GOP ethos is deep skepticism about regulation and devout conviction that centralized power is inimical to greater democracy.

But Newt Gingrich's remorseless critique of former Gov. Mitt Romney's years at Bain Capital, which stands as a symbol of a new stream of business skepticism within the modern Republican Party, does have historical antecedents.

After the 1912 election, Republicans, as University of Wisconsin historian John Milton Cooper put it in his classic The Warrior and the Priest, "reverted to pre-1912 patterns." But a strain of business skepticism, personified by figures with GOP roots such as Sens. Robert LaFollette, George Norris, and William Borah, endured for a time.

Mr. Gingrich may not have sorted out whether he is, in the formulation the late Yale historian John Morton Blum developed for TR, a conservative radical or a radical conservative. Some days he is more the one, some days more the other. Some days the two converge in a fantastic melange never before seen on the American political stump.

And though the questions he is posing about Mr. Romney are designed to advance his candidacy and diminish Mr. Romney's, Mr. Gingrich has changed the dynamic of the 2012 race, perhaps setting the Republican Party, maybe even all of American politics, on a new course.

It is a rare primary fight that does so much.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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