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.
“When McKinley was assassinated shortly after his electoral victory, it fell to TR to keep the new GOP majority together by pushing it to accept as much progressive reform as his tremendous energies could wrestle out of it,” said Nichols. “Needless to say, the Old Guard fought against his insurgency almost all the way.”
In the end, TR enacted enough reforms to keep progressives happy and in the GOP camp. He became disillusioned, however, after passing the torch to William Howard Taft in 1908 and watching the Old Guard reestablish itself.
He threw his hat back into the presidential ring in 1912 and, after the establishment rejected him, ran as a third-party candidate – handing victory to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats.
Wilson seized the opportunity to complete popular progressive reforms (much as Bill Clinton seized the opportunity to “end welfare as we know it”), attracting some progressives to his party.
“Of course, the Republican Old Guard went ballistic and pulled out every stop to regain power,” explained Nichols, “including opposing Wilson's League of Nations for political gain.”
Using weariness of World War I as a hammer, Republicans roared back to power in 1920. In the process, they substantially altered their principles – adopting the business-oriented foundation of today's party and kicking out progressives.
“The parallels between then and today are striking,” said Nichols. “If we consider the beginning of modern Republican control of government, marginal as it has been at times, as 1980, we would expect them to lose power to Democrats in 2008-2016.”
Their opportunity to return to power for another generation has only happened once before, and their long-term success depends on keeping insurgents within the party, no matter what it takes to win back control in 2012.
If Romney understands such historical parallels (and the challenges that come with them), he may be able to turn Obama into history.