Salena Zito

TAMPA, Fla. – When Mitt Romney stood on a stage here last Tuesday night and declared, “A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us – and we will win,” his words touched on something even he may not have realized.

What if this was not a throwaway line to appease Republicans’ Tea Party base, which is not sold on him as the nominee, or a reminder to Democrats not to underestimate a party in the midst of a very verbal family feud?

What if this was Romney referring to his possible role in the historical parallels of our politics?

American history includes a pattern of established parties losing control of government every 28 to 36 years. It began in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans ousted Alexander Hamilton and John Adams' Federalists, then continued in 1828 when Andrew Jackson's Democrats ended the Jeffersonians’ run.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln and the upstart Republican Party ended Democrats’ hegemony. Power then swung back to Democrats in 1892 with Grover Cleveland.

Only once, thanks to economic events and Cleveland’s poor leadership, was that pattern broken, giving the GOP an opportunity to reassert control of government for a generation. This, however, required them (in Theodore Roosevelt's words) to "make an old party new."

The GOP establishments of then and now faced the same challenge: integrating insurgent elements into the party by sharing leadership.

If today’s Republicans can that off, Barack Obama will suffer a similar political fate at the hands of realigned Republican Party.

This is usually impossible to do while holding onto control of government, according to Curt Nichols, an expert in parallel situations in American political history, “which is why we historically only see the opposition party trying this.”

Indeed, he adds, it is the minority's desperation to return to power after decades in the wilderness that finally encourages them to alter their party’s leadership: “No one gives up control of their party easily.”

The East Coast-based GOP establishment of the 1890s did not want to share leadership with upstart Midwestern progressives. Yet common fear of the radical platform of William Jennings Bryan united them long enough to win back control of government in 1896.

The establishment then tapped into progressives’ nationalistic and imperialistic energies by engaging Spain in war in 1898; it further appeased them by choosing loose-cannon progressive favorite Teddy Roosevelt – “TR” – as vice-president in 1900.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.