THE past may be a foreign country, as L. P. Hartley famously observed, but at least one of its landscapes — the political scene on election eve, a century ago — looks familiar to this time traveler.
Having ridden, in a sense, on the campaign train of Theodore Roosevelt, as the former president barnstormed in behalf of Congressional candidates in 1910, I am struck by some parallels between then and now. That year, the party dominant in Washington and in most state governments was the G.O.P. However, Democrats in those days could comfortably have accepted Newt Gingrich as their chief ideologue. (By the same token, I think T. R., reconstituted today, would support Mr. Obama. He had many of the racial prejudices of his generation, but he profoundly admired any black man who prevailed against them.)
Instead of Republican and Democrat, therefore, I’ll borrow Charles Dickens’s terms “Buff” and “Blue” to denote mutually contemptuous political opposites. The Buffs were in charge of Congress, and a Buff stalwart, William Howard Taft, was president. T. R. himself was Buff, and had chosen Taft as his successor. He now regretted this, feeling that Taft was much too comfortable with tycoons, lobbyists and pro-business lawmakers.
The Buff National Committee had long been owned by such men. There was no question — yet — of T. R. bolting and becoming an anti-conservation, anti-feminist, anti-Negro, states’-rights Blue. He ardently believed in a centralized government revolving around a forceful, moralistic presidency, with federal agencies regulating giant corporations and corrupt local governments. These beliefs had been so much a feature of his own two terms in office that he had inspired a white, middle-class insurgency that called itself the progressive movement (with a small “p”). Although most progressives were Buff, a growing number were Blue. They made up about a fifth of the electorate. Their discontents, vague but strident, varied region by region, but one cause linked them: they felt excluded from federal power, and were determined to make Washington listen to them.
T. R. was surprised to find how angry they had become during his post-presidential absence of more than a year abroad. Insurgents of Buff persuasion begged his aid in the midterm elections. At first he resisted, saying that a retired head of state had no place on the hustings. But the threat to his legacy was real, so with extreme reluctance he undertook to serve as their oracle.
His revolutionary “New Nationalism” address at Osawatomie, Kan., on Aug. 31 badly scared the Buff Party leadership. “The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty,” T. R. shouted from a kitchen table to an audience of appreciative farmers, “has always been... to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows.” He revived one of his favorite catch phrases: “I stand for the Square Deal.”
All this is by way of background to the campaign that followed. It was fought with a bitterness that promised ill for President Taft, and foreshadowed today’s passions. Rather surprisingly, T. R. became almost irrelevant to the fortunes of progressive candidates. Indeed, he hurt some of their campaigns with his too-strident oratory, pitched at a national level that transcended local concerns. Those who prevailed at the polls did so by articulating the frustrations of their communities and vowing to do something about rising prices, Asian immigration and other issues that seemed not to bother Taft and his rich golf buddies.
Election Day on Nov. 8, 1910, came far too soon for progressive voters, dispersed between the two major parties, to think of themselves as a single political force. Disillusionment with the Taft administration was so widespread among voters generally that the Buff Party suffered one of the worse defeats in its history. The president was written off as a goner, if he was so dumb as to try for another term. Blue candidates won control of the House of Representatives and gained eight seats in the Senate, bringing them within striking distance of a majority there, next time around. More than half the voting states chose Blue or progressive governors — including a dark horse in New Jersey named Woodrow Wilson.
One significant consequence of the voting was that a delegation of eight insurgent senators found itself in control of an upper chamber otherwise equally divided between Buff and Blue regulars. The sense of power that swing group evoked, along with the radical promise of New Nationalism, emboldened a large minority of their ideological supporters to unite behind Theodore Roosevelt as a progressive presidential candidate in 1912.
When the Buff convention that year obstinately renominated Taft, T. R. summoned them to follow him out of the party and stand with him at Armageddon. (At least one excited recruit thought it was in Oklahoma.) The immediate result was a capital “P” for Progressivism, and the most formidable third-party campaign in our history. It split the Buff vote, elected Wilson and humiliated Taft, who ran a poor third behind T. R.
Comparisons can be pushed too far, and it would be grotesque to suggest that today’s Tea Party much resembles the sophisticated “P” Party of a century ago. But if I were a Buff politician, or for that matter a Blue one, I’d be kind of nervous about the next two years.