This year’s Republican convention appears to be primed for a rupture of a kind we haven’t seen since Teddy Roosevelt broke dramatically with the party in 1912. The parallels are striking: The party is riven between establishment and insurgents. The people’s choice is prone to intemperate remarks and hotheaded declarations—to the delight of his followers and the frustration of party leaders. And, as Roosevelt did, this year’s front-runner claims he’s being screwed by the establishment—even having delegates stolen—and is vowing to do something about it. Donald Trump has openly flirted with the idea of running as a third-party candidate, and on Tuesday he even took back his pledge to support the GOP nominee if he’s not chosen. “[If] I go,” he warned earlier this month, “I will tell you, these millions of people that joined, they’re all coming with me.”
But if history is any guide, even a Trump exodus may be less consequential than many are imagining.
Running as a third-party candidate, TR certainly put up a strong fight, placing second overall. But, beyond that, his eventual decision to run on a third-party ticket had few lasting effects. It didn’t radically change the character of the GOP. It didn’t even present its members with a credible alternative beyond 1912. Like many third parties in American history, the Progressive Party that Roosevelt created was held together primarily by its adherents’ love for its standard-bearer. And that cult of personality wasn’t enough to make up for the history, infrastructure and deep bench of talented leaders that his movement lacked.
At the time, the high drama of the situation suggested that it might turn out otherwise. On Saturday, June 15, 1912, two days before the Republican National Convention was to begin, Theodore Roosevelt, the former and would-be president, pulled into Chicago’s La Salle Station. Despite the late-afternoon summer heat and humidity, huge crowds spilled into the railroad yards. Cheerfully flapping his cowboy hat, Roosevelt rode to the Congress Hotel on Michigan Avenue, several blocks east. Brass bands blared and diehard supporters jogged alongside his car. When his legions remained massed in Grant Park across the street, TR spoke from his hotel room balcony, vowing that William Howard Taft—the incumbent president and TR’s rival for the nomination—wouldn’t get away with stealing delegates (some 72 were in dispute). Two days later, in a formal speech, he said much the same thing, warning that if the delegates weren’t fairly tallied, Republicans shouldn’t feel bound to support the convention’s choice. “We stand at Armageddon,” he bombastically declared, “and we battle for the Lord!” By the time the convention was over, Roosevelt—rebuffed by the party establishment—resolved to form a new political party of his own.
One can imagine a similar scene unfolding at the GOP convention this summer in Cleveland. This year’s struggle, however, may also prove to be long on theatrics but short on consequence. If Trump is denied the nomination and runs as an independent—or even if the #NeverTrump crowd loses and mounts its own third-party run—the GOP will more likely than not remain the same uncomfortable alliance of business conservatives and right-wing cultural populists that it has been, more or less, since the time of Richard Nixon. Whether in 1912 or 2016, one man, no matter how charismatic, strong-willed, or iconoclastic, can invent or remake a political party.
The story of Roosevelt vs. Taft begins in 1908, when TR—retiring from the presidency after seven-plus years—anointed Taft, his secretary of war, as his successor. TR expected Taft, a friend, to advance his Progressive agenda of regulations and reform. But President Taft disappointed. Unlike TR, who happily warred with the Republican Party’s “Old Guard,” Taft mostly stood with business. He backed the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act, a boon to industrialists, and sided with his new Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger, over TR’s friend Gifford Pinchot, the head of the Forest Service, in allowing private development on lands Pinchot wanted conserved. Progressives brooded.
As 1912 approached, demand arose for a challenge to Taft. Jumping in first was the fiery “Fighting Bob” La Follette of Wisconsin, a fierce critic of Big Business. But in early February 1912, La Follette delivered a bizarre speech to the Newspaper Publishers Association that doomed his prospects. Starting late at night, and continuing for more than two hours, he berated his audience in an aimless, shrill jeremiad that drew jeers and caused many to walk out. La Follette had probably experienced some kind of nervous breakdown, but whatever the cause, the performance horrified observers. Many Progressives now pinned their hopes on TR, who was as determined, magnetic and newsworthy as he had always been.
By this point Roosevelt had mostly made up his mind to run. Not only was he angry at Taft for his apostasy, but he desperately missed the limelight. The youngest president ever to have served, TR was just 54 in 1912. He believed he had a second act in store. On February 21, he finally told a reporter, “My hat is in the ring.”
Roosevelt’s means for proving that he was the people’s choice would be the newly instituted popular primaries. La Follette and other Progressives had been urging the adoption of primaries for years. They argued that a party’s rank-and-file party members—and not the bosses, who were often close to the special interests—should have a say in selecting their party’s fall nominees. By early 1912, several states had established primaries, although most still picked their delegates to the national convention through party-run state conventions held throughout the spring.
Despite the high promise, though, TR’s bid began inauspiciously. He adopted positions even more radical than he had as president. Most controversially, he endorsed the judicial recall: allowing a popular vote to overturn a court’s decision. With a pro-business Supreme Court regularly blocking reform, the idea played well with some progressives, but others assailed it for compromising the independence of the judiciary. Taft compared the new, more radical TR to a French Revolutionary or a devotee of the “bubbling anarchy” of South America. Roosevelt also had to answer uncomfortable questions about pursuing what was in effect a third term—something he’d sworn never to do. And so as the first states held their conventions, Taft, using the party machinery, gathered his delegates.
But then came the primaries. The voters displayed a mind of their own. On April 9, Roosevelt won a major victory in the Illinois primary—the first one of consequence—netting 56 of 58 delegates. Four days later, he won big again in Pennsylvania. A groundswell seemed to be building. Taft, previously loath to campaign, reversed course. He fought hard in the next major contest, in Massachusetts, and eked out a win. But the president’s relentless attacks on TR took their toll—not least on Taft himself. He broke down before a reporter, sobbing, “Roosevelt was my closest friend.” Roosevelt, meanwhile, continued to roll up victories. By the end of the primaries, he had roughly 1,165,000 votes to Taft’s 768,000 and La Follette’s 327,000—and a lead in delegates.
Would those primary wins be enough? Then as now, the party held preconvention meetings to decide on which delegates to seat from the nonprimary states. There, Taft’s forces were in control and better organized. TR was reduced to challenging the credentials of various delegations—challenges that Taft, having allies in power, usually won. This kind of brute exercise of power was fairly routine in those days, but Roosevelt’s supporters cried theft. Believing themselves deprived of their rightful nomination, they talked of “bolting” the party.
The showdown came at the Chicago convention. TR’s camp tried various machinations to deprive Taft of his majority, including a bid to keep the contested delegates from voting on their own legitimacy. The gambits all failed. On the night of June 22, Roosevelt and his crew gathered at the Chicago Orchestra Hall to formally announce their break. In August, their new Progressive Party nominated Roosevelt at their own convention. Because TR had told reporters he felt as fit as a “bull moose,” the new party—a vehicle for the person of Roosevelt—was dubbed the Bull Moose Party.
The Bull Moose Party promised to fill a void and provide a home for the middle-class reformers who were marching behind Roosevelt’s banner. After all, the Democrats were dominated by their Southern wing, buttressed by support from urban Catholics and immigrants, but they weren’t yet the carriers of a clear-cut progressive ideology. The Republicans, for their part, seemed determined to stand with business and finance.
But Roosevelt’s Progressives faced more obstacles than they had anticipated. The most important was the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, who had vaulted to national prominence in just two years with his progressive record as governor of New Jersey. By choosing such an attractive and liberal candidate to lead them, the Democrats were poised to expand their appeal. Wilson would draw reformist votes from TR, while the GOP split seemed destined to keep either Republican from gaining a plurality. (Although some commentators made much of the difference between Wilson’s “New Freedom” and Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism”—competing economic plans—what mattered most was that both men intended to rein in Big Business and make the economy more equitable.) By the start of the fall campaign, most people expected Wilson to win. On Election Day, he did, handily, with TR finishing a distant second. Taft won only Utah and Vermont.
Still, by outperforming the sitting president, Roosevelt believed his new party could reconfigure U.S. politics. “It was a phenomenal thing to be able to bring the new party into second place and beat out the Republicans,” he said. He vowed “to keep the Progressive Party in such shape that it will be ready to serve the nation in any way that the nation’s needs demand.”
Roosevelt, however, wasn’t temperamentally cut out for party-building. He did little to strengthen his new creation. Instead, he went on a treacherous expedition to the Amazon River basin, where he nearly succumbed to disease (three of his fellow adventurers died). Meanwhile, without TR topping the ticket, Progressive Party candidates did poorly in 1914.
By 1916, with his Progressives disorganized and unable to summon many former Republicans to their ranks, TR came to see that winning back the White House—as he still hoped to do—meant returning to the GOP. He sought the nomination once more, but again he was passed over, as the party chose Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes—a compromise figure between the GOP’s factions. The Progressives held their own convention and offered TR the nomination, but he declined it, having pledged to support Hughes. Meanwhile, Wilson was enjoying a tremendously successful presidency, pushing through a progressive agenda of unprecedented proportions and winning the loyalties of onetime Roosevelt admirers. The lasting effect of the 1912 rupture, then, was to help make the Democratic Party viable once again as a national party and a vehicle of progressive reform, while doing little to alter the GOP’s pro-business orientation. (Though TR hoped to try for the GOP nomination again in 1920, his premature death in 1919 left the party without a front-runner, and it nominated the conservative Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding.)
This year, of course, might be different. Trump is obviously a vessel for long-standing discontent with the GOP leadership, and that discontent seems unlikely to abate. (On the other hand, Roosevelt, too, was a vehicle for a long-brewing reform spirit within the GOP that the party’s leaders didn’t take seriously enough.) And while Wilson’s Democrats moved swiftly to coopt some of Roosevelt’s message, making themselves into a Progressive Party, it is not clear how much of Trump’s agenda either party is willing to absorb.
Still, even if Trump bolts this year, it’s hard to see a lasting party emerging out of his candidacy. His voters represent, if anything, a less cohesive group than Roosevelt’s did in 1912. And just as no Progressive Party would have emerged that year without TR, so Trump’s voters almost certainly wouldn’t be coming together this year if it weren’t for Trump.
Nor, for that matter, would a Trump victory in Cleveland change the GOP as much as some are predicting. Too many of its stalwarts are deeply committed to policies of limited government and low taxes for the GOP to rewrite its basic script. The party may well soften its maximalist positions on a few issues to regain the allegiance of the middle-class whites flocking to Trump. But it will probably tweak, rather than overhaul, its stances on its core issues.
As the story of 1912 suggests, third parties usually need a compelling figure at their helm in order to gain traction. But the same reliance on personality can leave the new party weak after the leader exits the scene. By 1916, the Republican Party managed to regroup and mount a credible (if losing) general election campaign. And so the Progressive Party that Theodore Roosevelt started at the gates of Armageddon turned out to be, for all the wild excitement it generated, a footnote in our history.
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