As we all know, Mitch Daniels has advocated a “truce” on social issues. This edition of Morning Jay will offer a defense of that idea, arguing that, given the unique circumstances of next year's election, such a proposition could increase the chances of Republican victory in 2012.
First, let’s talk a little history.
We implicitly take our current circumstances for granted. We’re here because we are meant to be here. But that’s not really true. There have been plenty of junction points in history where we’d have to conclude that things could have easily gone another way altogether.
When I think of such moments, the one that comes immediately to mind is the election of 1896. That year, the Democrats nominated the 36-year old populist William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. The campaign hinged on the question of whether the currency should be based on the free and unlimited coinage of silver, which from the contemporary perspective might seem too technical to carry much import. However, it mattered enormously at the time, and the thought of President Bryan is a sobering one in any age. To put him in perspective as a historical character, about a decade later he would call for the nationalization of the railroads, and during his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, he said this:
You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.
He had a kind of apocalyptic view of politics and an us-versus-them mentality, which combined to cast him in the role of Jesus Christ for the agrarian masses. Without doubt, a President Bryan would have tried his hardest to alter significantly the trajectory of American political and economic development. America today might be a very different place had he won.
Bryan managed to cobble together a peculiar coalition of debt-ridden Great Plains farmers, Mountain West silver interests, and the “Solid South.” With this motley crew, he came very close to victory. The top-line numbers in the 1896 election – 51-47 – are notable enough. But drill it down, and you’ll see the margin was even tighter. Bryan, of course, won the South; if he had carried the Border states (which had gone Democratic every time since 1872), and the West (which he mostly carried), all he would have needed for victory was Indiana, which had been swinging like a pendulum for 20 years. All in all, flipping less than 20,000 voters in six states (out of nearly 14 million nationwide) would have made him president.
This prospect scared the living daylights out of the Eastern establishment. In their view, Bryan had to be stopped, and the elites dutifully poured millions of dollars into the campaign of Ohio's William McKinley, the Republican nominee. The GOP eventually outspent Bryan by a very large factor, but money was not sufficient for victory that year. The party had to find new, historically Democratic voters to make up for the loss of its radicalized Western base.
Essential in this task was the unique appeal of McKinley himself, who was a highly regarded advocate of Republican economic policies. He had won the nomination based on broad popular support within the party, rather than the backing of Northeastern bosses like Matthew Quay and Thomas Platt. More important for this analysis, he side-stepped the divisive cultural issues of the day, which tended to revolve around religious cleavages. Kevin Phillips offers the background:
Since the 1850s, the preachy Republican voice in which (“blue-nosed” Protestant) morality expressed its usual politics had made Democrats out of the great bulk of Catholics and Lutherans. Their religions, by contrast, were liturgical and ritualistic, and most communicants were uncomfortable with utopias, revivals, redemption, and evangelism. From 1884 to 1892, a wave of Middle West GOP positions against religious schools and for Sunday closings and strict liquor laws had significantly undercut Lutheran and Catholic support for the party, especially among Germans.
In 1896, the roles were reversed. Bryan was the evangelical who preached of populist fire and brimstone, thus giving Republicans an opening with these “liturgical,” historically Democratic groups. The notably ecumenical McKinley, who hailed from diverse Stark County, Ohio, and whose tenure as governor included many Catholic appointments, was able to exploit this opportunity.
During the campaign, McKinley studiously avoided cultural-based pitches and focused on what we today call “kitchen table” issues. This undoubtedly made a difference, especially in the industrial areas of the Old Northwest. For instance, consider Cuyahoga County, Ohio (Cleveland), with a 35.5 percent foreign born population by the 1890s. Lincoln had won Cuyahoga by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in 1864, but Republican strength declined in the following decades, and conservative Democrat Grover Cleveland actually won the county by 6 percent in 1892. However, McKinley reversed the trend and defeated Bryan by 7 points in 1896. Victories in counties like that all throughout the Midwest and Border states made the difference for the GOP that year. If the Republicans had nominated a less broadly appealing figure like Quay or Thomas "Czar" Reed, they probably would have lost.
Flash forward to 2011, and consider this graph from Keith Hennessey, which tracks historical spending and taxation levels against the projections in the Obama budget.
This is a sobering picture, and it is reminisicent of the dramatic change heralded by Bryanism -- albeit it in a liberal Democratic fashion, rather than an agrarian populist one. Obama's plan is to alter significantly a 50-year status quo on federal levels of taxation and spending; this is contrary to what he promised in 2008, a net spending cut and no new taxes on anybody making more than $250,000 per year. If the country enacts the Obama budget, both of those claims will turn out to be laughably false, and the future will look quite unlike the past, with a vastly expanded public sector, and a proportionally smaller private one. This is why I argued earlier in the week that 2012 is shaping up to be once-in-a-many-generations battle between the “share out” and the “share up.”
Into this battle, Obama brings many unique advantages. We should expect, for instance, that he will continue to do exceptionally well among African Americans, who should turn out in higher numbers than normal to support him. Additionally, he could once again pull strong support from the Hispanic population, considering the similarity of his background to many Hispanics whose parents were not born in the United States. His appeal to the African American and Hispanic communities might have increased the share of the Democratic vote by as many as four and a half points in 2008 (relative to 2004), and if indeed his strength with these groups is personal-based, that is a vote Republicans cannot count on winning back in 2012. In terms of electoral math, that puts the GOP in a squeeze in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, as well as Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.
So, like Bryan, Obama could do uniquely well in places that have a historic Republican tilt to them. On the other hand, his fiscal policies might generate weaknesses in the areas where New Democrat Bill Clinton made serious inroads in the 1990s – places like the Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia suburbs. In these areas, upper middle class voters have gravitated to the Democrats because of their (apparent) fiscal and social moderation. However, increasing the size and scope of the government as Obama envisions will surely be a burden that falls on these New Democrat voters, who decades ago used to back the Republicans in strong numbers. With Obama promising unprecedented levels of spending and taxation, they might be willing to come back to the GOP fold in 2012. Evidence of this possibility came in 2010 when Mark Kirk in Illinois and Pat Toomey and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania all won statewide victories thanks to solid support from upscale suburbs.
This is why a modern update of McKinley’s “cultural ecumenicalism” might do the Republican Party enormous good, as it could make it easier for these critical suburbanites to come back to the Grand Old Party. And remember, a truce is not the same thing as capitulation. Nor, for that matter, is it a ceding of power to the so-called RINO establishment of the East. Mitch Daniels, after all, is a pro-lifer from Indiana, which has never been part of the elite Eastern GOP club, certainly not what is left of it (which is not very much!). A truce is just a temporary suspension of "hostilities" as culturally conservative and moderate voters recognize that they have the same fiscal interests at stake in the next election.
William McKinley has long been an unsung hero of modern, conservative Republicanism, and it's high time that the Grand Old Party appreciate his important legacy. Few party leaders have been more thoroughly Republican than he -- and if he was prepared to call a cultural truce to strengthen the anti-Bryan coalition, just how bad of an idea can it be for next year's battle with Obama?