Sunday, January 24, 2016

Once There Were No Primaries-- And The Party Bosses Just Picked The Presidential Nominees


There dream of the Republican establishment this year-- stopping Herr Trumpf and the hated Ted Cruz with a deadlocked, brokered convention-- looks pretty moribund at this point. It looks like Trumpf is on the way to be able to march into Cleveland with all the delegates he needs for a first-ballot nomination. And the Establishment seems resigned to convincing themselves that the world is wonderful because at least they won't have to deal with Cruz. But deep in their hearts I bet they're longing for another era, when party bosses picked presidential candidates, not primaries and caucuses. The interview with Geoffrey Cowen, author of Let the People Rule, gives you a good look into how presidential candidates were picked irrespective of the will of ordinary voters up until quote recently.

A few days ago Ari Berman, author of Give Us The Ballot, penned a review of the book for the NY Times and, with the threat of a Mike Bloomberg third party presidential run, a look at the 1912 presidential race Cowen highlights is well worth reexamining. The election itself pitted Republican President William Howard Taft against Democrat Woodrow Wilson, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt running as a Progressive, and Socialist Eugene Debs. Before we get into Berman's review of Cowan's book, let's get the results out of the way:
Wilson- 6,296,284 (41.8%)-- 40 states, 435 electoral votes
Roosevelt- 4,122,721 (27.4%)-- 6 states, 88 electoral votes
Taft- 3,486,242 (23.2%)-- 2 states (Utah and Vermont), 8 electoral votes
Debs- 901,551 (6.0%). no states, no electoral votes
At the Democratic Party convention, Gov. Wilson was nominated on the 46th ballot-- beating the Wall Street candidate (Champ Clark). At the Republican convention, Taft beat Roosevelt with the help of the conservative GOP establishment that hated Roosevelt for his anti-trust policies. The GOP nomination battle was further complicated by Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, who was further left than Roosevelt. La Follette won 2 primaries, Roosevelt won 9 and Taft won 1. The rest of the states didn't give voters a role in picking the party nominees. As Berman reminds us in his review, Roosevelt said, in finally coming around to backing primaries, that "The right of the people to rule is the great fundamental issue now before the Republican Party."
But at 9:28 p.m. on June 22, 1912, William Howard Taft was renominated by Republicans at their presidential convention in Chicago. Only minutes later, 150 delegates loyal to Teddy Roosevelt marched out of the Chicago Coliseum, mimicking the rumbling sound of a steamroller, and headed for Orchestra Hall, where thousands had raucously gathered to inaugurate Roosevelt as the leader of the new Progressive Party. “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord,” Roosevelt proclaimed. The machinations that led to Roosevelt’s exit from the Republican Party and the creation of what became known as the Bull Moose Party is the subject of Geoffrey Cowan’s Let the People Rule.

After leaving the presidency in 1908, Roosevelt had named Taft as his handpicked successor. Yet, upon returning from a lengthy trip to Africa and Europe, Roose­velt grew disillusioned with Taft and decided to challenge his former secretary of war.

Cowan explains how Roosevelt’s shrewd support of primaries gave him an opening against Taft while co-opting the message of more radical reformers like the Wisconsin governor Robert ­LaFollette. Roose­velt’s campaign “popularized presidential primaries and increased the number of states that embraced them,” Cowan writes. “His rhetoric helped to enshrine the cause of popular democracy in the nation’s vocabulary.” But Taft still maintained a huge lead in delegates chosen by the party machinery from states that did not hold primaries, which forced Roose­velt to bolt the party after the Chicago convention.

In many ways, Roosevelt’s Progressive candidacy was ahead of its time. It promulgated innovative ideas like social security and a federal minimum wage that were later adopted by Roosevelt’s fifth cousin Franklin in the New Deal.

Yet the primary system wouldn’t be reformed until after 1968, when Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee at his party’s disastrous convention, also in Chicago, despite not having won a single primary. Chaos in Grant Park was the result, forcing both parties to change their rules and become more democratic.

...Cowan paints an admirably nuanced picture of Roosevelt, exposing the hypocrisy of his call to “let the people rule.”

Though the Progressive Party endorsed woman suffrage and welcomed black delegates from the North, Roosevelt, in a bid to woo conservative white Southerners, refused to seat African-Americans from the South at his convention. “I believe that the great majority of the Negroes in the South are wholly unfit for suffrage,” Roose­velt said, echoing the Southern white supremacist sentiments of his day.

His gambit failed in the general election, when the Democrat Woodrow Wilson carried every Southern state, winning 435 electoral votes and 42 percent of the popular vote. Roosevelt won 88 electoral votes and 27 percent of the vote. Taft garnered only eight electoral votes and 23 percent of the vote. But the Progressive Party collapsed soon after. “The dog has returned to its vomit,” Roosevelt said of the Republicans in 1914.

Primaries have not become the democratic remedy Roosevelt was hoping for. Yes, voters have much more say now than they did in 1912, but primary contests have often pushed the parties toward their respective extremes, particularly the Republican Party, while the cost and length of campaigns skyrocketed. “Let the people rule” remains more an aspiration than a reality in American politics today.
For the political history junkies, since I mentioned that Taft only won Vermont and Utah, the 6 states that Roosevelt won were California (by just 200 votes), Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Washington. People interested in where Debs did best-- and 1912 was his best run of his 5 presidential campaigns-- may be surprised to see that all the double digit states were out west:
Nevada- 16.47%
Oklahoma- 16.42%
Montana- 13.64%
Washington- 12.43%
Arizona- 13.33%
California- 11.68%
Idaho- 11.31%

In an unrelated post in The Atlantic Sunday, David Greenberg pointed out that Teddy Roosevelt "ushered in an age in which presidents would be perpetually engaged in the work of publicity and opinion management-- the work of spin" and he illustrates it with Roosevelt's "historic 1906 quest to clean up the shoddy and predatory practices in the stockyards and meatpacking houses where Americans got their daily diet of beef." This is exactly the kind of thing that earned him the undying enmity of the Big Money Republican Party establishment and why they stuck with the unpopular Taft rather than embrace Teddy Roosevelt in 2012.
After decades of unchecked industrial growth, American businesses and industries were in need of federal regulation—to protect workers, consumers, farmers, or simply other competitors in the marketplace. Addressing the issue of unregulated meatpacking and other foods had been on Roosevelt’s to-do list for some time when he raised it in his December 1905 message to Congress. “Traffic in foodstuffs which have been debased or adulterated so as to injure health or to deceive purchasers,” he declared, “should be forbidden.” The Senate, dominated by business interests, resisted, but Roosevelt hoped to prevail by enlisting public support. To do so, he seized on a popular outcry triggered that spring by the reporting of a crusading, 27-year-old socialist with whom, despite profound ideological disagreements, Roosevelt locked arms.

 ...When his book appeared, Sinclair undertook a promotional campaign. That effort included writing a slew of pieces about the sordid state of Chicago meatpacking for a variety of magazines. It also entailed mailing out copies of The Jungle to important people. One recipient was Theodore Roosevelt, who, fortuitously, was just then considering how to marshal public support for regulation of the so-called Beef Trust.

 Never one to mince words, the president deemed Sinclair a “crackpot.” But he shared the novelist’s dim view of the meat moguls. He wrote Sinclair a three-page letter that mocked the young man’s “pathetic belief” in socialism and offered a critique of The Jungle-- but one that concluded with: “The specific evils you point out shall, if their existence be proved, and if I have the power, be eradicated.” Roosevelt extended an invitation to the White House.

By this point, Roosevelt was at work on his own plan. He had previously asked the Agriculture Department to investigate conditions in Chicago. The president thought that if he could confirm even a portion of Sinclair’s report, he could galvanize public opinion and force the balky Congress-- which was warring with TR over his reform agenda-- to move on meat-inspection legislation. When Roosevelt shared the news of this preliminary step with Sinclair, the novelist demurred, fearing, as he told the president, that having the Agriculture Department examine the issue “was like asking a burglar to determine his own guilt.” Instead, Sinclair urged Roosevelt to open “a secret and confidential investigation” by a disinterested party.

...Public support for reform was building. With Roosevelt’s backing, Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana introduced an amendment to the agriculture appropriations bill that imposed stringent rules on meat inspection, including dating canned meat, with meatpackers forced to pay the costs. Spurred by this flurry of activity, the Pure Food and Drug bill-- which prohibited the adulteration and mislabeling of foods, beverages, medicines, and other drugs-- also now started to advance, separately, toward passage.

On the defensive, the meatpacking and livestock industries joined forces. They warned that any legitimation of Sinclair’s charges would dry up foreign markets for U.S. meat; federal regulation, moreover, would shift control of the industry from the businessmen with the relevant know-how to “theorists, chemists [and] sociologists,” as one spokesman said. When it became clear that some version of the bill was likely to pass, the industrialists switched to trying to strip out the most severe provisions. The beef companies even placed newspaper ads inviting readers to visit the packinghouses and judge for themselves.

The beef industry had been routed in the court of public opinion. As the packinghouses literally whitewashed their facilities as part of a desperate cleanup job, the press grew withering. The New York Evening Post offered doggerel: “Mary had a little lamb/And when she saw it sicken/She shipped it off to Packingtown/And now it’s labeled chicken.” Before a House committee, Neill and Reynolds rehearsed with fanfare their gory findings, including an account of a pig carcass that fell into a urinal before getting hung, unwashed, in a cooling room.

House conservatives made a defiant stand, and Roosevelt and Beveridge ultimately made some concessions. But the Indiana senator proclaimed the final bill “the most pronounced extension of federal power in every direction ever enacted.” Its achievements far outweighed its deficiencies, and it established important standards and precedents. On June 30, 1906, Roosevelt, with a stroke of the pen, made meat inspection the law of the land—and with another stroke signed into law the Pure Food and Drug bill. “In the session that has just closed,” he said to the press, “The Congress has done more substantive work for good than any Congress has done at any session since I became familiar with public affairs.”

The meat-inspection episode showed the president’s skill not only at discerning public opinion aroused by the press but also at using statements, leaks, and the cultivation of journalists to pass his progressive agenda. In an article hailing “The Reign of Public Opinion,” the great muckraker Lincoln Steffens called it “the real power behind Theodore Roosevelt.” Congressmen submitted to the presidential will, Steffens said, because he was “the leader of public opinion” and they feared popular retribution if they defied him. Even Sinclair, who had wanted a stronger bill than the final compromise, praised TR: “He took the matter up with vigor and determination, and he has given it his immediate and personal attention from the very beginning.”

Roosevelt is remembered as the first president of the modern age not simply because he used presidential power on behalf of sweeping reform-- a feat in itself-- but because he redefined the president’s job by governing with an acute consciousness of his power to reach the public.

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