So the Republican Party Is at War with Itself?

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tags: election 2016, GOP

Michael H. Ebner is the James D. Vail III professor, emeritus, of American history at Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, IL

Largely overlooked in commentaries about the premature termination of the campaign of Jeb Bush for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination we find a deeply embedded narrative best understood as an endless intra-party struggle.

Among the most visible players in this enduring storyline – most of them familiar to this very day – were Robert A. Taft, Wendell Willkie, Thomas E. Dewey, Earl Warren, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Barry M. Goldwater, Nelson A. Rockefeller, George Romney, Richard M. Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.

An early hint of this came during the 1920s and 1930s. A handful of nationally prominent Republicans – Fiorello LaGuardia, George Norris, and Harold Ickes – edged away from their party affiliation. Although none of them became a bona fide Democrat, they regarded themselves as independents who aligned themselves with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Robert M. LaFollette broke with the Republicans in the election of 1924, seeking the presidency as a third-party candidate.

But the presidential election of 1940 is a key benchmark. Wendell Willkie – the embodiment of a dark horse and until recently a Democrat – unexpectedly attained the Republican’s presidential nomination. In doing so he thwarted the candidacy of Robert A. Taft, the best hope of conservative Republicans. After Willkie’s defeat in the general election, he served as President Roosevelt’s roving international emissary to promote a multilateral alliance against the Axis.

It also is useful to recall that between 1940 and 1956 the Republican Party – to the utter chagrin of its conservative wing – nominated presidential candidates best defined as embodying its Eastern internationalist wing.

Dwight Eisenhower’s nomination in 1952 came after an internecine struggle with conservatives. In an act of utter futility, conservatives had continued to champion Robert Taft for the White House. This was Taft’s third and final effort to secure the party nomination. When Ronald Reagan gained the presidency in 1980, his victory embodied the long-denied ascendancy of the party’s conservative wing. But even this came about only after he outdistanced George H. W. Bush, who had carried the fading banner of Republican moderation.

But we also can detect another largely overlooked intra-party fault line. Played out at the state level in the final third of the twentieth century, it retains a resonance that helps us to comprehend the upending of the presumptive presidential candidacy of Jeb Bush.

This storyline entails a rather lengthy list of notable Republican officeholders. Among them were several United States senators: Clifford Case (NJ), Jacob Javits (NY), Thomas Kuchel (CA), Charles Goodell (NY), Charles Percy (IL), and most recently Richard Lugar (IN) as well as Robert Bennett (UT). Two governors also belong on this roster: William Cahill (NJ) and Richard Ogilvie (IL). All of these Republican officeholders found themselves ousted by dismissive electorates in intra-party contests or in the ensuing general elections.

We should also note that three prominent Republican members of the United States Senate – Nancy Landon Kassebaum (KS), Kay Bailey Hutchinson (TX) and Olympia Snowe (ME) – ultimately opted not to pursue re-election between 1997 and 2013. Collectively they had served for fifty-seven years. Their respective decisions to exit suggest that divisive intra-party conflicts, including the fevered rise of the Tea Party in 2010, frustrated their role as legislators.

Whatever the undeniable foibles of the Jeb Bush candidacy, we should read his exit as another chapter in the struggle among divergent Republican ideologies to define the party.

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