Thursday, August 11, 2016

Voting for the least objectionable candidate: Roosevelt in 1884

As Republicans debate their party's nominee and consider their support, I am reminded of Theodore Roosevelt's conundrum in 1884. In one of the most (in)famous American presidential elections Republican James G. Blaine of Maine ran against  Democrat Grover Cleveland of New York.

Blaine was notorious as a corrupt politician with a history of scandals. But he was very popular with large segments of the party who dubbed him "magnetic man" and the "plumed knight from the state of Maine." The son of a civil service reformer, the young Theodore Roosevelt was deeply troubled by the party's choice of candidate. He had backed George Edmunds, a senator with most reform credentials, to be the party's presidential standard bearer, but he was in the minority. Roosevelt saw the Republican Party as the champion of nationalism, fairness, morality, and the good old republican virtue of the founding generation. Blaine with his corrupt bargains, kickbacks, and patronage dealing, was a repudiation of all that Roosevelt believed that his party stood for.

What to do? Should they remain loyal to the party or bolt and join the small group of reformers that became known as the mugwumps? For a man with his political ambitions, this was a very difficult choice. Voting for the Democrats, the party of rum, romanism, and rebellion, as he saw it, was not much of an option. While Cleveland had a reputation as an honest politician, his private life was marred by the kind of scandal that would have repulsed Roosevelt. In 1884, Roosevelt was stuck where many find themselves to be in 2016, which is to say they are trying to figure who is the least objectionable candidate to vote for.

Roosevelt compounded his difficulties when he vented about Blaine to a reporter in what he thought was a private conversation. Pressured by all sides, especially those reformers of his social class who naturally expected they would join them, Roosevelt discussed the options with his friend Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. After deliberation, they concluded it was best to hold their noses and support the party's nomination. After all, what was one election, with their careers before them. They spoke on the party's behalf on the campaign stump, even if they did so lukewarmly and neglected to mention Blaine's name.

In the short term, this was a disaster for Roosevelt. Hounded by both the reformers and the party regulars as turncoat and flipflopper, Roosevelt withdrew from politics. He went west to start a second career as a rancher.

Of course, Roosevelt was able to re-build his political career. He took a hit for the party by running as a sacrificial candidate for mayor of New York City in 1886, an act that reestablished him as a party loyalist. As biographer Kathleen Dalton argues in Strenuous Life, Roosevelt redefined party loyalty as a manly, masculine virtue. He restored his standing with reformers by his bold support of civil service reform from his position on the Civil Service Commission, which he won, oddly it might seem, as a political reward for his vigorous support of Benjamin Harrison. Roosevelt even investigated Harrison's law partner in Indiana!

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