How Teddy Roosevelt almost Destroyed the Republican Party

The Republican Party could be on the verge of a crackup or a civil war. We now have two rival groups claiming to be the leadership of the Republican Party.

An attorney for ex-president Donald J. Trump Senior’s (R-Florida) political action committee (PAC) sent letters to the Republican National Committee (RNC) and other groups telling them to stop using Trump’s name and picture to raise funds on 9 March 2021. Similarly, Trump has asked followers to donate to his Save America PAC instead of the RNC, National Public Radio (NPR) notes.

The RNC’s lawyers counter that their organization has every right to use Trump’s likeness, NPR reports. To elaborate, Trump is a public figure who has limited control over the use of his likeness and name.

Trump vs. The RNC

Essentially, Trump is asserting that he is the Grand Old Party’s (GOP) leader and his organization; the Save America PAC, runs the party. However, the RNC is GOP’s official leadership organization.

Moreover, Trump has asserted his right to throw politicians he dislikes out of the party. In particular, Trump wants the party to expel the seven US Senators who voted for his impeachment. Trump also wants to get rid of US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) whom he regards as an enemy.

Thus, the Republican Party’s most popular figure is waging war on the party’s leadership. This situation is extraordinary, but it has occurred before, back in 1912.

How the Republican Party Almost Broke up in 1912

Interestingly, in 1912, the Republican Party faced a situation similar to the one it faces today.

An extremely popular ex-president who was the country’s biggest celebrity launched an insurgent campaign against the Grand Old Party’s leadership. The result was all-out war between that ex-president; Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) and a sitting president, William Howard Taft (R-Ohio) and a third-party challenge.

The 1912 Republican crackup began because Taft refused to continue some of Teddy’s policies. In particular, Taft refused to reappoint some of Roosevelt’s cronies to federal offices. In addition, Taft fired Roosevelt’s friend US Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot.

When Taft ignored Teddy’s requests to undo his actions, Roosevelt began considering a challenge to Taft in 1912. TR’s challenge upset Republican leaders who were firmly behind the president.

However, rank-and-file Republicans were behind Roosevelt. Like Trump today, Teddy owned the Republican base.

The Celebrity vs. The Party

On the other hand, Republican leaders mostly party bosses wanted Teddy to stay retired. The party leaders had hoped Teddy would stay away on Safari in Africa, or on vacation in Europe, but he did not.

To explain, Republican donors hated Roosevelt’s progressive policies such as trust busting (breaking up giant corporations). They preferred Taft’s softer and gentler progressivism. Notably, Taft was more successful in breaking up trusts, largely because he was a better lawyer.

Additionally, Taft and Roosevelt disagreed on trusts (monopolies). Taft believed the government had a duty to break trusts up. Conversely, Teddy thought the government needed to preserve monopolies.  

Ordinary Republicans, however, preferred the flamboyant Roosevelt to the boring Taft. Similarly to today, the 1912 Republican Party had become a cult of personality based around a popular celebrity ex-president.

Elected Republicans; including the President himself, found themselves cast as Roosevelt’s supporting players, and they did not like it. However, in 1912, those Republicans had the power to block Roosevelt’s nomination, and they used it.

Roosevelt’s behavior set the stage for all out war between the most popular Republican in the country and the party’s leadership.

How Teddy Roosevelt almost Destroyed the Republican Party

The 1912 Republican split occurred because of the way they selected convention delegates.

Under the old system, the delegates selected the presidential nominee at a party convention. In 1912, party organizations selected most delegates.

However, a few states, including New York, were experimenting with primary elections. Only ten states held Republican primaries in 1912, but Roosevelt won nine of them.

Hence, TR was the favorite of the Republican base. Yet the party leaders could keep Roosevelt off the ticket because they chose most of the delegates.

Roosevelt made the split inevitable on 28 March 1912 when he issued an ultimatum. In the ultimatum, TR threatened Republicans with a third-party run if the GOP did not nominate him.

The Crackup

The showdown between Theodore Roosevelt and the party leaders came at the 1912 Republican convention.

Roosevelt broke tradition and became one of the first presidential candidates to attend the convention. Predictably, TR’s presence disrupted everything.

Taft had the support of most delegates before the convention opened on 18 June 1912. Roosevelt forces cried foul and tried to have Taft delegates from Texas, California, Arizona, and Washington State thrown out.  

When that trick failed, Teddy’s forces faced defeat. The Taft supporters ensured victory by electing their man Elihu Root as chairman of the convention. The convention moved rapidly to nominate Taft and Vice President James S. Sherman (R-New York) for second terms.

The Running of the Bull Moose

Roosevelt responded by announcing the formation of a “new party dedicated to the service of the people.” TR’s organization called itself the Progressive Party, but the press nicknamed the group The Bull Moose Party. To explain, Roosevelt was stubborn and aggressive like a Bull Moose.

The Bull Moose held their own convention in Chicago in August 1912. Roosevelt and his running mate Governor Hiram Johnson (R-California) hoped to gain votes with an enormous package of popular reforms.

Those reforms included; votes for women, social insurance (Social Security) a minimum wage, national health insurance, campaign reform, an eight-hour workday, workman’s compensation insurance, an income tax, an inheritance tax, and direct election of US Senators. Interestingly, most of the Progressive Party’s reforms became reality in the next 25 years.

Seventeenth Amendment (mandating election of US Senators) in 1913. The states ratified the 19th Amendment, which allowed women to vote and hold political office on 18 August 1920.

Several Progressive Party platform planks including Social Security and a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) became law as party of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (D-New York) 1930s New Deal.

Republican Armageddon

Predictably, the principal beneficiary of the Republican Civil War was the Democratic nominee Governor Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey).

Wilson, like Roosevelt and Taft, was a progressive, however his program was milder and more conservative than either TR or Taft. Additionally, Wilson had the Jim Crow Solid South and powerful big-city political machines behind him. The opportunity of victory united the Democrats behind Wilson in 1912, and they smelled blood.

One victim of the Progressive run was Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs (S-Indiana). Bizarrely, Roosevelt’s Progressives stole much of the Socialist Party’s agenda. Debs could not match Roosevelt’s star power, which doomed the Socialists.

However, on Election Day 1912, the Progressives discovered the limits of celebrity and Star Power. Wilson won a massive victory capturing 435 Electoral Votes and carrying 40 of the 48 states.

Roosevelt won 88 electoral votes and carried six states, the best performance by a third-party presidential candidate in American history. Embarrassingly, Taft won eight electoral votes and carried two states. Debs carried no states and won no electoral votes.

The Aftermath

Inevitably, Republicans blamed Roosevelt for the defeat. To explain, Republicans thought Roosevelt captured enough votes to enable Democrats to win historically Red states such as Colorado, Kansas, and New York.  

Wilson won reelection in 1916 and squandered the Democrats’ new popularity in the trenches of World War I. Roosevelt returned to the Republican fold and campaigned for the 1916 GOP candidate Charles Evans Hughes (R-New York).

In 1919, at the time of his death, Theodore Roosevelt was many pundits’ favorite for the 1920 GOP nomination. Given Democrats unpopularity after World War I, Roosevelt could have won a third term in 1920 had he been Republican nominee.

In 1920, the Republican Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio) won a massive victory 404 Electoral College votes to 127 for James M. Cox (D-Ohio). Harding carried every state outside the Solid South and one Southern State, Tennessee.

Eugene Debs won almost one million votes in the 1920 presidential election because of his steadfast opposition to World War I. Ironically, Debs was in prison on trumped-up treason charges during the 1920 presidential election. Debs’ crime was to question the motives of Wilson’s war effort. One of Harding’s first actions as president was to release Debs and apologize to him.

Harding appointed Taft Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Taft was the only ex-president to serve on the Supreme Court. Taft’s son US Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio) became a serious presidential candidate and a conservative folk hero in the 1940s and 1950s.

The major consequence of 1912 was that the Republicans became America’s conservative party and the Democrats the progressives. Oddly, before 1912, the Democrats were the more conservative party. After 1912, Democrats became the progressives and Republicans the conservatives.

Had Roosevelt won the Republican nomination in 1912, the GOP could have become the progressive party and Democrats the conservative. Similarly, the Progressives could have replaced the Republicans as one of America’s two major political parties.

1912 and Trump

I think the Republicans’ 1912 debacle shows us a probable future for the GOP.

My prediction is that Trump, like Roosevelt, will return to the Republican fold and accept a role as party frontman. The Republicans survived 1912 because Roosevelt and the GOP leadership reached a compromise.

The compromise was that Roosevelt agreed to return to the party and stage no more revolts. In exchange, the party would support a future Roosevelt presidential run, if TR behaved himself.

Thus, I think Trump will behave himself and the party will consider a Trump run in 2024. Note: I do not think Trump will run in 2024. Instead, I predict the Donald will endorse some party hack; probably U.S. Senator Wesley Graham (R-South Carolina), as his successor. That way Trump can blame the elite, Graham, and stolen votes for the probable defeat.

In comparison, 1912 shows us that parties can survive destructive splits. However, humility and compromise are necessary to survive such splits. I do not think Donald J. Trump Sr has those qualities. So Trump could doom Republicans to crackup between now and 2024.