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Morning Jay: In Defense of the "Truce"

6:00 AM, Feb 18, 2011 • By JAY COST
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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.

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