Campaigns are often won or lost because of party unity and the consistency of message. However, there are times when critical issues come to the forefront and a party must go down a new path or face years in the wilderness and possible extinction.
For Republican candidates and party members there may be a great temptation to lay into fellow candidates and even attack different constituencies within the party, which is now happening with regular frequency. For the 2012 election cycle Republicans must understand what happened to a nearly forgotten 19th century American political party, the Whig Party.
Republicans, always reminded of Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment, “Thou shall not criticize a fellow Republican,” often stray from that dictum, often with disastrous results. However, it must not be forgotten that Reagan actively worked and campaigned against others within the GOP. He even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, in 1976.
Reagan clearly did not think that the direction of the Republican Party was unquestionable, or that conservatives should wait on the sidelines for leadership to make their electoral decisions for them.
Reagan embraced “informed Patriotism” in his farewell address, which was about learning from American history not just memorizing events. Reagan believed that citizens can and should be able to question elected officials and even members of their own party if they do not uphold American principles or embrace the right path for the country.
Conservatives need to look now at the failures of past parties and movements to understand what they have to do going forward.
Examining the rise and fall of the Whig Party in the Jacksonian Era of the early to mid 19th century is highly instructive to Republicans of the modern era.
The real strength of the Democratic Party in the Jacksonian Era was its ability to connect to the common man, who became increasingly important after ‘one man, one vote’ laws were passed, and its rapid adjustment to the dramatic changes in demographics. The Democrats also found a leader that truly represented their most cherished beliefs in Andrew Jackson.
Strong political organization, backed by masses of new voters who wanted to put their hero Andrew Jackson in office, created strong majorities in state and national level politics. The Democratic machine also allowed the architect of the party, Martin Van Buren, who was known as “The Little Magician” for his political wizardry, to occupy the presidential seat in 1836.
In 1836 the Democratic Party looked like it would remain unbeatable for a generation as the newly formed Whigs struggled to organize or find a nationally competitive platform.
After Van Buren was elected, the Whigs finally caught a break. In 1837 the economy, hit with a catastrophic financial panic, imploded. A toxic brew of bad policy and bad luck created an opening that the Whigs could use to their advantage.
The economic depression of the late 1830’s and early 1840’s in many ways mirrors our own, and the economic stagnation left the Van Buren presidency adrift. It was up to the Whigs to put together a plan to deliver a knockout blow, and to find a presidential ticket that could win a national election.
The problems that the Whigs faced, however, were numerous. There was no consensus candidate. In the 1836 election the Whigs ran three different candidates that represented the fractured and uncoordinated nature of the party. The discordant and disorganized Whig nominees were smashed in 1836, practically handing the presidency to Van Buren.
Obviously, the Whigs learned that for the 1840 election there is no way to win with three choices from the same party. The Whig Party had to find a way to harness the smaller, but nonetheless influential movements that were occurring throughout the nation.
For example, the Anti-Masons were highly suspicious of “elites” in society, and believed that the Freemasons used businesses, laws, and the government to protect their own special interests. The comparison with the Tea Party may not be precise, but the dynamic between the Anti-Masons and the Whig Party was similar to the Tea Party groups and the Republican Party. Anti-Masons were a populist and energizing movement that was often met with outright hostility by Whig Party elites, many of whom were Freemasons. It was, however, nearly impossible to win without Anti-Masonic support on a national level.
When he was asked by a fellow Whig leader about what to do about the Anti-Masonic movement that he had personally dismissed as wrongheaded, Henry Clay said, “Do not attack them. Leave them to the Democrats.” Clay and Whig Party leaders had no intention of allowing splinter, activist groups drive the agenda.
Henry Clay, who was the de facto leader of the Whig Party, realized the importance of these smaller factions when they swept a number of Whigs into office in the mid-term elections of 1838. He said of the banking faction that was prevalent in the northeast, “We could not have succeeded without them, and without them we cannot maintain the ground which has been won by joint forces.”
The most critical major challenge for the Whigs was how to implement a national platform. The Whig platform was for the most part the “American System” that had been promoted by Henry Clay since the early 1820’s—long before the Whig Party even existed. It was comprised of three major ideas. The existence and protection of a national bank, high tariffs to protect the country’s budding manufacturing industry and the use of tariff revenue to fund “internal improvement,” which was an 18th century term for infrastructure.
As important as the American System was to Clay and influential Whigs, the policies it entailed were quickly falling off the national radar. The Second National Bank was dead, moderate tariffs were generally accepted and massive, expensive infrastructure projects were mostly unpopular. The issues at the top of the national radar were changing, and the Whigs couldn’t keep up or adapt quickly enough.
When the Whig Party refused to nominate him in 1840, Clay decided that he would try to influence the path of the party and country by other means. Clay threw all of his weight behind William Henry Harrison. Clay believed that Harrison would accept and sign off on the ideas of the American System, which Clay could pass through his own mastery of Congress. Ultimately, Whig leaders knew that Harrison was a man that they could control, which is precisely what they wanted.
The Whigs decided not to examine the differences that fractured their coalition, and instead focused all of the party’s attention on the failure of Van Buren and the Democrats. The Whigs just wanted anyone but Van Buren.
A Democratic newspaper editorial gave the Whigs a campaign slogan when it said of Harrison, “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and a pension of two thousand dollars a year and he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.” Even though William Henry Harrison was a well-off man from New York, the campaign turned him into a frontier populist by running as the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” candidate. The vice presidential pick was John Tyler of Virginia, leading to the famous campaign slogan of “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!”
Harrison won the presidency, but died mere months after taking office. Tyler, who was not properly vetted by the party, ended up being more closely aligned with Democrats and vetoed most of the legislation of the Whig Congress. It was a catastrophic disaster that led to the near total dissolution of the Whig Party.
Nothing was more emblematic of the Whigs’ struggles as when, during the campaign of 1840, an abolitionist Quaker named Hiram Mendenhall, who had ties to the Tea Party-like activist group called the “Liberty Party” as well as the Indiana Anti-Slavery Society, tried to make Clay sign a petition to free his own slaves during a stump speech. The man went on stage to deliver his petition, but Clay declared that it was just made to embarrass him, that releasing a slave was equivalent to asking the Quaker to give up his farm, and that Mendenhall should mind his own business of “attending to the needs of widows and orphans.” It was a dramatic retreat from principal for a man who claimed to deplore slavery and was the head of the American Colonization Society.
The legendary defender of the Union and liberty, Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts also backed down when he made a speech supporting the fugitive slave law passed during the compromise of 1850. The law made it easy for slave-owners to round up escaped slaves in free states, in large part making slavery a national rather than mostly local phenomenon.
Whig leaders, who had claimed to deplore slavery, were unable to muster the political will to combat it when they felt their party, careers and perhaps the country were threatened. The compromises, which had worked so effectively in earlier eras, were no longer acceptable to large swaths of the nation.
Party unity and populist imagery propelled the Whigs into the White House, but without the ability to rally around a core set of timeless ideals, the party was doomed to extinction within two decades. By the 1856 election, the Whig Party couldn’t even field a national candidate.
The Republicans in the late 1850’s did what the Whigs of the 1840’s couldn’t do. Republicans rallied around more than a transient economic program, and did more than pay lip service with populist platitudes, they united around core values that would bring in new voters and strengthen their cause in the coming civil war.
The modern day GOP is now being thrust into a similar situation that the Whigs were in. The Democratic Party, while losing the war of ideas with Republicans, is still united behind a charismatic leader that is emblematic of the heart and soul of modern progressivism. Questions over what the country is, the undermining of the Constitution, and how it can be maintained with a fast eroding, but ever-growing entitlement system have gone to the very top of the national agenda.
Party activists are no longer patiently accepting slow-moving, moderately conservative presidents and presidential candidates to stop the Democratic Party programs. They demand a leader that represents the mood, culture and ideas of the Republican Party right now.
If the Republican Party nominates another moderate for president during this cycle that seems to scream out for a bona fide, Tea Party conservative, it may be the last time that it does so, whether or not that candidate wins or loses.