1852 deja vu?

After three different winners in the first three presidential contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and now Michigan, the fractures in the Republican coalition have never seemed more fragile. As stated before in this space, I am a McCain supporter, but I’m beginning to wonder if John is just too honest to win a modern political nomination.

Recently McCain ran his Straight Talk Express off the road in Michigan when he told voters there that jobs lost in the automotive industry “were gone and they’re not coming back.” Any economist could have confirmed this sad fact, but candidate Mitt Romney, in a bid to bring back the Glory Days of his 1950s Detroit youth, promised voters that he would raid the federal treasury for at least $20 billion to bail the auto industry out. As if that would be enough! And this is an economic conservative?

Meanwhile Mike Huckabee is down in South Carolina telling the faithful that the United States Constitution needs to be amended to conform with “God’s law.” Say what? This is something I would expect from the Taliban, not from a leading contender for a major American political party nomination.

Against this kind of craziness, Ron Paul is starting to look good! But before that happens I guess we’ll have to go through a Thompson and a Giuliani boom and bust. Can Fred revive himself long enough to win the South Carolina primary Saturday before he takes his next nap? Can Rudy scare the B’jesus out of enough retired New Yorkers to win Florida?

Will the guy with the most money or the best pandering abilities win Super Tuesday, or are we headed for a brokered convention? And most importantly, is this any way to run a party? All of which makes me wonder if we aren’t approaching the death of the modern Republican Party. Don’t think it can happen? Remember the Whigs?

The Whigs were formed in the 1830s in opposition to the policies of Democrat Andrew Jackson. By 1840 they rode “Old Tippecanoe,” Indian War Hero William Henry Harrison, to national victory. They won again in 1848 with another war hero, Zachary Taylor, but soon found themselves on the wrong side of history.

The 1848 election saw the first appearance of the Free Soil Party, which was dedicated to stopping the expansion of slavery. They nominated former Democratic President Martin Van Buren and took 10 per cent of the national vote, probably just enough to throw the election to the Whigs. After Taylor died in office, Western New York’s only President, Millard Fillmore, succeeded him.

At the 1852 Whig convention, northern delegates who felt the Compromise of 1850 was too favorable to the South dumped Fillmore in favor of Gen. Winfield Scott on the 53rd ballot. The badly-splinted party fell apart after losing the general election to Democrat Franklin Pierce and was never a national factor again. So much for brokered conventions!

By 1856 the remnants of the Whigs, the Free Soilers and anti-slavery Democrats were absorbed into the new Republican Party. While the Republicans lost their first national attempt behind John Fremont, just four years later they elected Abraham Lincoln, himself a former Whig. (BTW in 1856, Millard Fillmore re-emerged as the standard bearer of the anti-immigration American Party, known pejoratively as the Know Nothings, polling 21 per cent of the national vote.)

If you look at the states that Lincoln won in 1860, (everything north of the Mason-Dixon line, the upper Midwest, California and Oregon), it seems unlikely that the Republicans will win any of these states this fall behind anyone except McCain (or possibly Giuliani)–especially against Obama! In fact, with the exception of Ohio, Indiana and Iowa, none of those Lincoln Republican states were in George Bush’s column in 2004, and those three aren’t looking too promising for ’08!

I believe John McCain represents the last gasp of the Lincoln roots of the Grand Old Party. These days, however, he is finding much of his support among so-called “independents” because, increasingly, that is what former Republicans in the Lincoln states and beyond are calling themselves.

McCain’s moderate views on immigration may be on the right side of the historical tide, however, they are something that the modern “Know Nothings” of the Republican Right will never forgive him for. If this wing succeeds in taking over the Republican Party on a platform of God and throwing the illegals out, they will probably be about as successful as poor Millard in 1856.

Note: My ruminations on this subject were inspired by re-reading an article by Kirk House that was originally published in the Autumn 1996 issue of Genesee Country Magazine. I have recently posted more of that magazine’s Greatest Hits on line.

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