The Grand Old Party Ain't What It Used To Be: Interview with Lewis L. Gould

David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network.

Barry Goldwater buttons from his 1964 presidential campaign. Credit: Flickr/Wofford College.

Lewis L. Gould is the Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American History at the University of Texas -- Austin. A prolific writer and presidential historian, he is the author of numerous books on the presidency and the Progressive era, including, most recently, a new biography of Theodore Roosevelt. An updated paperback version of his 2003 book Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans, has just been released by Oxford University Press.

I recently spoke to Professor Gould on the telephone about the presidential history of the Republican Party.

Thanks for talking with me, Professor Gould. To start, what are some of the similarities and differences between the Republican Party of 1856 and the Republican Party of 2012?

The party that started out in the 1850s was obviously anti-slavery, but more than that, it was devoted to granting opportunities to Americans, including African Americans. On economic policy, they believed in doctrines of nationalism embodied in the protective tariff, the sale of public land, and the promotion of internal improvements, much of which they drew from their Whig party antecedents. But as they developed in the nineteen century and on into the early twentieth century, they saw themselves as the party that was for promoting the growth of economic enterprise and using the power of the government in that direction. And so they saw the Democrats as the party of states' rights, of small government, of economical government, and of low taxes. To this, they contrasted their Republican vision of a more expansive and forward-looking approach to the nation's problems.

And so how does that compare and contrast with their platform in 2012?

Well, in may ways they have morphed into a kind of twenty-first century variant of their nineteenth-century opponents! The speakers at the Republican National Convention talked about small government, states' rights, and opposition to the power of the national government. There's even some Republicans who are skeptical about Lincoln, questioning whether the Civil War should have been fought, whether the nation took a wrong turn in the nineteenth century by emphasizing the power of the federal government, which has led to consolidation and federal tyranny. So there are many echoes of ideology -- not the pro-slavery side, but the ideology in some aspects -- of the Confederacy in the modern Republican Party.

I mean, the Republicans would have emphasized in the nineteenth century the concept of the union, and they talked about the more perfect union, in Lincoln's phrase, and now they see the union as something to be questioned, and limited, and constrained. So the aggressive nationalism of Lincoln and James G. Blaine and McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt would seem strange to Republicans today.

Let's step back from contemporary politics for a moment and go back to the Republican Party just after Abraham Lincoln (because everybody knows -- or should know -- Lincoln). How did Republican ideology develop and evolve between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt?

The Republicans, after Lincoln's death and with the opposition of Andrew Johnson, sought to implement what I like to call, and what others have called, "the peace terms of the Civil War," which broadly speaking boiled down to the Fourteenth Amendment, which established the concept of national citizenship: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." The idea that there was a national citizenship to which every American was entitled was one of the large achievements of the Republican ascendency in the 1850s and 1860s.

As they tried to go further, however, they met the resistance of the unreconstructed South and the Democratic Party, which in the nineteenth century was an avowedly racist organization standing against the changes the Civil War had brought, and the Democrats successfully tapped into the racial feelings of people in the United States. It became clear by the 1876 election that there was no popular consensus about going further in expanding black rights. And so the Republicans, faced with this unyielding resistance, and questioning the value of Reconstruction after awhile amongst themselves, turned to the idea of using the government to promote economic growth primarily through the concept of protective tariffs.

Now, today, when everybody is a free-trader at least in nominal terms, the idea that there was a party once that believed in high tariffs as a way to protect and encourage industry and protect American labor from foreign competition seems like an absolutely wild idea. But from 1865 well into the 1920s, you had to be a high protectionist to be a Republican! It was as much an article of faith to the GOP then as lowering taxes is today.

Moving ahead to the Progressive era, and I'm thinking in particular Theodore Roosevelt and the transformations he effected both within the Republican Party and nationally -- and it should be pointed out that the Tea Party has really demonized Roosevelt...

Yes, well, by the turn of the twentieth century many Americans saw business consolidating and they worried about the rise of big trusts and industrial accidents and absence of pensions and medical insurance and a whole host of things we take for granted, and Americans began to say maybe the government -- first at the state level, then later at the federal -- should do more to make corporations behave and regulate them in the public interest. And Roosevelt, who was a natural activist, believed that it was necessary to have such regulation, or else the prospect of social revolution and socialism might come to have a great influence on the American society. So Roosevelt, who was in many ways a conservative man, believed that some reform was necessary or more drastic measures would be taken by the socialists.

You make him sound a bit like Otto von Bismarck in a way -- he famously created the German welfare state to stave off the threat of social revolution.

Well ... [laughs], the "Iron President." But there was something -- well, forcing the parallel -- there was some similarity, at least in the sense that both were worried about the turbulence within society. Roosevelt was very worried about the lack of control and what popular passions might do if unleashed. So he said, "let's use the federal government to make gradual, cautious, but serious reforms."

By 1912, the Republican Party had divided between those who agreed with TR and those who anticipated the modern Tea Party point of view. That kind of division that occurred in 1912 -- which put Woodrow Wilson in the White House -- began a debate which we're still having in the present day. In many ways we still stand in the shadow of TR and the election of 1912.

So what happened to all of Roosevelt's supporters after the 1912 election? Were they reincorporated back into the Republican Party?

Well, some drifted back into the Republican Party, which was their natural home. Others moved more towards Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats and helped re-elect Wilson in 1916. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 scrambled the political scene a bit, because the issues of whether we should support the Allies against the Central Powers threw foreign policy into the mix in a new way.

How so?

Well, Roosevelt was for intervention, but he was not for the League of Nations. To say he did not like Wilson is an understatement. He hated him with an undying passion, which Wilson reciprocated. But the nation did not become as isolationist as legend would have it. We did pull back from political commitments to Europe in the 1920s and early 1930s until the rise of Hitler and the dictators. The Republicans were very split over intervention in World War II, and they still have these competing strains within the party to this day about how much we should be involved in the world and how much we should not. The more interventionist probably have the ascendancy at the moment, but if you listen to somebody like Ron Paul you can hear echoes of William E. Borah and Robert Taft and others who said we shouldn't get involved in quarrels overseas.

Let's jump ahead to the 1920s. Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge have been the recipients of good press recently from Republican and conservative historians and pundits. They've been arguing that these presidents have been treated unfairly by historians and that their legacies have been colored by the distaste of historians for presidents and political parties who were not in favor of activist government.

There's something to that. I think there's more to be said for Harding and Coolidge. Not a lot, though -- you can get Harding up to a C- or maybe on his good days a C.

In some ways Coolidge is more beloved, because a) he was less corrupt, or rather had a less corrupt administration, and b) he really believed in the ideology of low taxes and less government interference. He's seen as the sort of precursor to Ronald Reagan. But Coolidge's personality... It's going to take a lot of rehabilitation to make him seem more likable. As Alice Roosevelt Longworth said, the president looked like he'd been weaned on a pickle.

Herbert Hoover responded to the onset of the Depression through a burst of government activism. Was that part of a deeper ideology, or was he simply adapting to the circumstances? And was that true of the Republican Party broadly? There were other figures within the party -- Robert LaFollette from Wisconsin springs to mind -- who came from a very different place than the Warren Hardings.

Hoover was more activist than he was given credit for in the 1930s. He did more to fight the Depression than Franklin Roosevelt would have thought. But I think Hoover's big failure -- and it's the irony of his whole career -- was that he made his reputation by feeding the starving people of Belgium and Russia during and after World War I. And yet when it came to the relief of starving Americans between 1929 and 1932, that's when his ideology took over and he was less able to convey a sense of empathy -- to use the modern phrase, he didn't get it -- about how difficult the situation really was. That sense of being aloof or detached from the suffering of the millions, more than anything else, did in an honest man who had honest beliefs and a great deal of talent.

That's the tragedy of Herbert Hoover. At the moment of the great crisis of his life, he wasn't able to summon the reserves that he had had ten or fifteen years earlier. He became convinced that he had to remain true to conservatism or he would destroy the American Dream. Mostly, he destroyed his own political career.

By 1936, the Republican Party was willing to accept, to some degree, the New Deal. I believe Alf Landon ran on a pro-New Deal platform.

This is the point where Republicans began this debate within their ranks that went on from 1936 to 1964 -- where the choice was, let's oppose the New Deal and all its works and denounce it in every way possible, or, as Landon and Wendell Wilkie and Thomas Dewey said, it's crazy to denounce everything the New Deal has done. There are some things like Social Security and labor relations that we may not like, but we've got to accept. Dwight Eisenhower said any party that tries to do away with Social Security will likely disappear. The conservatives said that this was trying to be a "me too" party, in that a Democratic candidate would say, "I'm for Social Security," and the Republican would say "Me too! But I'll administer it better."

Conservative Republicans like Robert Taft argued that the GOP needed to oppose all the aspects of the New Deal. None of it was worth preserving. This is language that has many contemporary echoes. Eventually the conservatives would prevail, first with Goldwater and then later on with Reagan.

But Taft couldn't clinch the nomination in 1952, and before that, as you noted, the GOP nominated Landon, Wilkie, and Dewey -- far from ardent conservatives.

What happened in 1952 was that the foreign policy wing of the Republican party which wanted internationalism and involvement overseas favored Eisenhower over Taft -- Taft was an isolationist before World War II and did not favor NATO. But on economic issues Taft and Eisenhower were probably closer than they realized. Eisenhower wasn't going to tilt at any windmills by taking on Social Security or the popular aspects of the welfare state, though.

But when Eisenhower advanced what he called "modern Republicanism" in the 1950s, which was a code word for, "let's accept the New Deal and go on from there," it went over like an iron pancake to the Republican regulars. They wanted to oppose the New Deal, Social Security, and prevent a medical insurance program (what would later be known as Medicare) from happening.

I wanted to explore some additional aspects of the Republican Party in the 1950s before going forward. One thing I'd like to talk about are the public works projects undertaken by Eisenhower, particularly the Interstate. There was an article on HNN last week by Tammy Ingram, who wrote that until recently, Republican Party was more than willing to openly embrace public spending and publics works projects as a way to stimulate business growth -- and we've talked about this ourselves. There's the common conception that the Interstate was build for defense reasons -- to facilitate military traffic in the event of a war with the Soviet Union -- but what were the economic/ideological reasons behind it?

Remember, Eisenhower was born in the 1890s, at a time when Republicans still believed that public works and internal improvements were useful to spur economic growth. Eisenhower saw that the Interstate was going to create a lot of work for a lot of contractors, but that it would also enable Americans to use their automobiles in a way that hadn't been done before. Now, it had a strategic purpose, too, but for Eisenhower it would produce prosperity, it would appear to the American people, who -- then as now -- loved their cars, so what was not to like?

Let's talk a little bit about civil rights. It's a thread that we lost as we came up to the 1950s, but was the Republican Party ... were they divided on civil rights like the Democrats were?

Well, the Democrats weren't really divided until the 1920s, when the Great Migration brought blacks to the North and you began to see the election of black Democrats. Northern Democrats then basically said, "Wait a minute. Let's not have a racist Jim Crow party anymore." But the Republicans, through the '20s, '30s, and into the '40s, were seen as the more liberal of the parties on civil rights, because the Democrats had the Solid South. In fact, Eisenhower got a very respectable percentage of the black vote in 1956. It scared the Democrats, because if that were to continue, it would be very difficult for Democrats in the long run.

But at the same time the Republicans were tempted -- as they had been to extent going back to the 1890s -- by the idea that if they could break into the Solid South and unite white voters there with GOP policies, they could become a permanent majority party. When the Democrats moved in the direct of civil rights in the '50s and early '60s, the temptation for the Republicans to find common cause with unhappy Southern Democrats was almost irresistible. Eisenhower to certain degree, and Nixon in a much more determined way, began the Southern strategy, appealing to disaffected white Southern voters.

There was a book published recently by Sean Trende, "The Lost Majority," which argued among other things that realignment elections don't actually happen, and that furthermore the New Deal coalition was in decline as early as 1938. The South in particular was, Trende argues, shifting toward the Republican Party -- and this has been cited by conservative commentators as evidence that the South warmed to Republicans because of the party's conservatism, not the Southern strategy. What do you make of this argument?

Well, I guess after forty-five years of living in the South, I would say that if you scratch enough, you're going to find race in the explanation somewhere, and usually it's pretty close to the center of the issue. There was a conservatism on economic policy, sure, but it was a conservatism that reserved certain kinds of racial privileges.

Let's go ahead to the 1964 election. 1964 is often thought of as the turning point in modern Republican history, where the old-style, moderate, "modern" Republicanism of Dwight Eisenhower was marginalized by a newly-ascendant conservative wing, led by figures like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. But was '64 really as decisive of a year for Republicans as it's been built up to be?

Well, it's decisive in the sense that the Goldwater people and the conservatives remained in control of the Republican Party; otherwise, it seems to have been a kind of anomaly, which arose from the death of Kennedy and Goldwater's weaknesses as a candidate. Remember, there hadn't yet been the long hot summers of the intensity of '65, '66, and '67, the Vietnam War had not erupted in the way that it would, and there wasn't a sense among suburban Americans that their values and gains were threatened by turbulence in the inter-city. So all of this produced the unlikely result of Lyndon Johnson getting huge majorities.

Of course, the problem for the Democrats was that in 1966 and then again in 1968 they were massively repudiated. The country swung very much to the right. Some of this was masked by the Wallace candidacy, which made Humphrey more competitive than he really was -- but if you add together Nixon and Wallace, millions of votes switched from '64 to '68 in the direction of Wallace or Nixon. And the Republican ascendancy that started then would last until Bill Clinton in 1992 -- Jimmy Carter being a lucky result of Gerald Ford, Watergate, and Carter's Southern background. For the most part, the country saw Republicans and conservatism as what it wanted in comparison to the Democrats' racial turbulence and racial egalitarianism.

Richard Nixon, though, he has this reputation now as governing as the last liberal Republican, of have policies that were very, very different than the modern Republican Party.

Yes, you'll never hear Nixon's name mentioned at a Republican convention. Nixon has been called the last liberal president -- the man is so difficult to grasp, he hid so much of himself from public view, that you never really understood what his motives were with the Environmental Protection Agency, guaranteed income, and other things that today would have him drawn and quartered by fellow Republicans. He's an interesting figure who capitalized on the resentments of that period, but was a very different kind of Republican than say, even Ronald Reagan -- himself a very different kind of Republican than the most conservative Republicans today.

Back then you actually had to govern, which is an impulse that seems be attenuating amongst Republicans -- holding power and winning elections are important, but I'm beginning to wonder whether they really think the business of governance is something worth doing.

Who was the last Republican president, then, who took the business of governance seriously?

I think that George H.W. Bush is the last example of the moderate Republican. When he made the tax bargain in 1990 with the Democrats, it was both economically sound and an example of responsible governance. But then Republicans like Newt Gingrich said, "We're never going to do that again.".

How much of that intransigence is due to the institutional dynamics of Washington?

I see things in a more semi-cosmic way. Let me explain. I think that the Republicans have never truly accepted the legitimacy of the Democratic Party as a political alternative, and that goes back to the Civil War when the Republicans were fighting for the union and the Democrats -- some elements of the Democratic Party -- crawled into bed with the South. The Republicans at that time decided that the Democratic Party was the party, as Joe McCarthy would say, of treason. It couldn't be trusted, it wasn't legitimate, it wasn't truly American in the way the Republican Party was.

The particular positions of the Republican Party have obviously changed dramatically over the course of a century-and-a-half, but I think in the Republican DNA is a view that the Democrats are not legitimate in the sense that they're an acceptable alternative to the natural order of things, which is the Republican Party in power. You see this with the response to President Obama. It raises real questions about how you have a democratic government when one party does not accept the legitimacy of the other. That gets very chancy in keeping democracy going over time.

I've been reading the letters of William Howard Taft in 1913, after he'd lost to Wilson, and he was writing and saying that we had to give the president a chance. That's a world away from Mitch McConnell in January 2009 saying the main task of the party is to defeat the president. It wasn't that there was no honeymoon -- there wasn't even a date! It was just, "take your programs and hit the road" as far as President Obama was concerned, and the Republicans never really negotiated in the sense that they were willing to accept anything less than total capitulation. The senatorial candidate in Indiana who defeated Richard Lugar, Richard Mourdock, said bipartisanship is when Democrats do what we want them to do. That isn't a two-party system as political scientists would define it.

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