I Want My GOP

This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?

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A divided national party . . . voices of extreme rhetoric . . . an ugly, contentious primary season. Does this spell doom for two-party system?

Sounds modern, doesn’t it? But the year was 1860, and the party in question was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and shaped in the image of Andrew Jackson: The antebellum Democratic Party.

On the eve of Civil War, the future of the Union appeared in fatal doubt. Political leaders in the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida had all but washed their hands of the centrally powerful United States. Adding to the precarious atmosphere, a faction of Democrats in the North promoted a policy to permit slavery into the western territories under the principle of Popular Sovereignty, or direct vote. Others voices in the northern branch of the Democratic Party believed the Southern States should depart the Union in peace. And these pro-secession advocates became the most worrisome threat for Senate leader, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860.

Douglas found himself in a hell of a spot. He fervently burned to lead his party to the White House and save his nation, dangerously poised on the verge of civil war. As the principal heir to Senate leadership, Douglas had spent over twenty years in Congress working to stave off Southern secession, taking over when Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” died. Clay had also spent most of his earlier career drawing up one concession after another in a noble attempt to preserve the Union. Eventually the effort wore him out, and Senator Douglas pick up the cause.

As far as Douglas was concerned, slavery wasn’t a moral issue, merely a bump in the road. The issue could easily be decided by the good folks migrating west. Douglas believed if settlers didn’t want slavery, they would decline to establish laws necessary for supporting the “peculiar institution.” But the Senator was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to fix. And it was this miscalculation, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded both his party, and his career.

The new Republican Party had organized six years earlier in Wisconsin, founded on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party spread quickly. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified alliance insisted that free labor was an integral component to a flourishing free market economy. The presence of slavery in sprouting regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future commercial growth.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these Republicans did not sing Kumbaya or braid their hair. These men did not believe in equality between the races—they were not abolitionists. Economic principles drove their political platform, (Emancipation came later with the transformation of President Lincoln through the caldron of war).

For Stephen Douglas the approaching 1860 election meant vindication for his support of popular sovereignty, and reward for his faithful political service. And Douglas was no political hack. He fully understood the solvency of the Union lay in the delicate art of sectional balance, and his ascendancy to the White House as a Democrat would go a long way to placate the Southern hotheads. But this Illinois Senator failed, once again, to fully comprehend the temper of the nation, or of his own party. The era of seeking middle ground had passed—America’s course had been set toward industrial modernity with no place for an antiquated, barbaric labor system.

Charleston, South Carolina, was selected as the site of the 1860 Democratic convention. Chaos immediately broke loose on the convention floor. While Southern Democrats demanded strict, precise language guaranteeing the extension of slavery into the territories, Northern Democrats and those from California and Oregon pushed for Douglas’ popular sovereignty. This tense deadlock forced the latter faction to walk out and reconvene in Baltimore where party business could function.

Southern Democrats moved on without Douglas or his faction. In a separate, Richmond, Virginia convention, Southern Democrats proceeded to nominate Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

Back in Baltimore, Senator Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local voters determining the western migration of slavery. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Richmond took a step further, adding the absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground had vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks with both Douglas supporters, and the Richmond faction. Calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party,” this coalition nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

So what can we make of this 1860 fiasco today, in 2016? If I could attempt a bit of divination I would suggest that the political party that can present the most united front will prevail in the general election. If current Republican candidates continue to employ such wide-ranging, and scorching tones to their rhetoric, and stubbornly defend the innocence of their loose talk, the party may run head long into oblivion, as did the Democrats of 1860. If the roaring factions, currently represented by each GOP aspirant goes too far, the fabric of unity will shred, crippling the Republican’s ability to field serious candidates in the future.

Looking at the past as prelude much is at stake for the unity of the GOP. In 1860 party divisions nearly destroyed the Democrats, propelling the nation into a bloody civil war. And though Republicans at that time elected our greatest Chief Executive, Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats suffered for decades, marginalized as the party of rebellion. And even the best lessons left by the past are still forgotten in the heat of passion, by those who know better. (The Democrats shattered their party unity once again a hundred years later, splintered by the Vietnam War.) This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s turbulent Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected their national party, certain it no longer represented them, and ultimately silenced the party of Jefferson and Jackson for decades. The lesson is clear for today’s Republicans. By tolerating demagoguery, extremism, and reckless fear-mongering in their field of contenders, the RNC may indeed face a similar demise.

Though it is true that no party can be all things to all citizens, malignant splinter groups should not run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to field candidates of merit and substance.

We deserve leaders worth following.

As Senator Stephen Douglas refused to recognize that the political skies were falling around him, and his party, the modern Republican Party must not.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight a two-part memoir. Available on Kindle

Nothing Happened

A small article about Kevin McCarthy caught my eye yesterday. Apparently the Speaker, with a perceived mandate from the country is looking to expunge at least one of Trump’s impeachments. 

To expunge means to remove the vote from the Congressional Record as though it never happened.

And this isn’t the first time a president has forced his will on the legislative branch.

The first candidate to manipulate Congress, Andrew Jackson lived with a perennial chip on his shoulder. The frontrunner of the Democratic-Republican Party, he knew he had won the popular vote in 1824, yet lost in the Electoral count. The explanation is complicated, but suffice it to say Jackson was pissed off.

Crying Corrupt Bargain Jackson stewed until 1828, then won the presidency with a decisive victory in both the popular and electoral vote.  

In 1832 Jackson stood for reelection, campaigning with the precision of a military operation. Long smoldering fury stoked Jackson’s rage—after all he was General Andrew Jackson, Indian fighter, victor over the English, and slave master. 

Jackson believed he championed the American people.

The Second Bank of The United States stood in the crosshairs of Jackson’s second term. This half Federal, half private institution contained all government receipts, making loans to states, to individuals, and issuing paper money. Truth be told, Jackson, especially detested the Bank’s director, Philadelphia patrician, Nicholas Biddle.

In a remark at the time, Jackson told his Vice President, “The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me, but I will kill it.” And the President’s word was his bond. Political opponents in Congress were aghast, convinced that Jackson wouldn’t dare carry out such a disastrous act. But, Jackson did dare. He promptly vetoed the recharter of the Second Bank of the United States before election day.

As for the election of 1832? Andrew Jackson, enormously popular, again received a mandate from the electorate.This victory he interpreted as approval for destroying the Bank.

Promptly, Federal funds were removed from the Philadelphia Bank, then distributed among state banks termed “pet banks.” Over time, these small, unregulated operations made high risk loans and when faced with a 1836 monetary contraction, were forced to call in those loans. Debtors could not repay, paper money dried up, and gold bullion grew scarce. The economy bottomed out into a long depression called the Panic of 1837.

Opponents in the Senate accused Jackson as behaving like an autocrat, King Andrew I. Outraged, Senators passed a resolution that officially censured Jackson for his misguided policies regarding the Bank. 

For four years Jackson allies in the Senate worked to expunge that censure. By 1837, with only months until the end of Jackson’s administration, partisans in the Senate finally succeeded. A black line crossed out the censure as if it never happened. 

People suffered due to nothing. Never happened.

America has witnessed a similar calamity these past few years. But instead of Corrupt Bargain, the rallying cry became Stop The Steal, or as it’s better known the Big Lie

The lesson between past and present boils down to this: blind allegiance to one man is dangerous, and no substitute for competency and even-handed governance. 

Kevin McCarthy does no service to the country because the former guy wants his crimes officially erased. Our country teetered on the edge of a fascist regime, but Kevin and his cronies want it forgotten.

One other thing, you have no mandate.

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Harry Truman

gailchumbley@chumbleg

Author of two books, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” Chumbley has also written two stage plays, “Clay”and “Wolf By The Ears.” Both works concern historical figures and their times.

A Theory

He proclaimed “it’s morning in America,” on a political commercial reassuring citizens the country’s best days still lay ahead. Responding to four gloomy years of oil shortages and the American hostage taking in Iran, the nation enthusiastically turned from Jimmy Carter’s malaise to genial Ronald Reagan’s smile.

Reagan had campaigned hard against what he viewed as an intrusive and bloated Federal bureaucracy. After his landslide victory in November, 1980, President Reagan, repeated that theme in his inaugural address remarking, “it is no coincidence that our present troubles . . .are from . . .the growth of government.” The new president added that “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem.” Conservatives and Blue Dog Democrats were giddy to see federal entitlement programs cut, or at least significantly pared down. 

In the spirit of shrinking domestic spending, the Reagan Administration shepherded Congressional bills to cut services to poor and disabled Americans. Federal education programs went under the ax, as well as reductions of Medicaid, and Social Security. These entitlements endured steep cuts by restricting eligibility, and removing many from the federal rolls. 

Mr. Reagan operated under the theory of “trickle down economics,” a belief that tax cuts for the rich would naturally benefit lower income brackets. New economic opportunities would emerge as reinvested wealth would find its way to employing the lower classes. Also known as “supply-side” economics, Reagan proceeded to slash not only taxes on the rich, but also loosened federal regulations on businesses, environmental protection, and opening federal lands to private interests. 

As Reagan’s personal hero, Calvin Coolidge, once stated, “the business of America is business.”

But the anticipated economic outcomes didn’t quite pan out. Though social programs saw budgets slashed, military spending spiked, going to high ticket stealth technology development, and the fated Strategic Defense Initiative. The rich did become richer, but no benefit managed to trickle down. With relaxed oversight the New York Stock Exchange finally crashed in 1987 due to eased SEC regulations, and a myriad of shady practices that benefitted insiders. One of the more egregious examples of this malfeasance concerned the Savings and Loan fiasco of 1986.

And the real cost for Americans? Middle class taxes bailed out insolvent, shady S&L’s, while at the same time reduced social programs inflicted real hardship upon the least among us. Congressional passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1981 was one such law. This bill mirrored one implemented earlier in California when Reagan served as governor of that state. The law essentially “streeted” mental health patients residing in psychiatric hospitals across the country.

In explanation, the Reagan Administration argued that newer and better psychotropic drugs would offset the need for in-patient treatment, and those who still needed in-patient mental health care could be looked after by local communities and families.

However, local communities and families did not, or could, not step up.

Today we see the fallout of the Mental Health Systems Act in real time. Among the homeless are those hard hit by financial trouble, the mentally ill, the dispossessed who endure every season housed in tent encampments, huddled under bridges, seeking refuge in hospital emergency rooms, in public buildings, and sleeping in parks and alleys. Many are veterans, addicts, and untreated victims of assorted psychiatric disorders.

America doesn’t seem able to understand how this massive uptick in homeless populations erupted across the nation. In the richest country in the world Americans are unable and/or unwilling to demand our political leaders find solutions. No one seems keen to fight the disdain, and stigma of permitting homeless shelters anywhere, particularly near residential areas. The failure is visible in every urban area in the nation. And if there is anyone to blame for this slow-motion humanitarian disaster, look no further than the so-called “Reagan Revolution.” 

The kicker is that the Reagan Administration did not save a cent despite entitlement cuts. Instead of reducing expenditures the federal deficit tripled from $930 billion in 1981 to $2.8 trillion by 1989.

So much for theories.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Chumbley also has written two historical plays: “Clay” exploring the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears” a study of American slavery and racism.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Reading Tea Leaves

Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision.

Abraham Lincoln

From 1790 to now, American midterm elections have functioned as an effective gauge of public opinion. 

Despite southern secession, and the subsequent war of rebellion, President Lincoln viewed national elections as the indispensable foundation of a free government. There were dissenting voices calling for cancellation of the 1862 midterms due to the war, but Lincoln did not hold to that. 

After two years in office, Lincoln needed to know where he stood with the people. The Republican Party kept majorities in Congress, but a significant shift among unhappy voters surfaced. 

Democrats (those still in the Union) picked up 27 seats in the House. Though the Senate did remain in Republican hands, Lincoln understood the first two years of war had cost him plenty. Bloody defeats on the field of battle at Bull Run, the Peninsular Campaign, plus the massive casualties at Antietam had cost his administration.

In the Twentieth Century, the bi-election in 1934 delivered a powerful message of support to Franklin Roosevelt and his administration. Not only did the public approve of his New Deal, they added nine more members to the House majority, and an additional nine to the Senate. Clearly Roosevelt’s economic measures had grown in popularity across the stricken nation. Conversely, by 1938, Democrats lost 72 House seats with 81 gains for the GOP.  FDR took those results to heart changing course on some of his policies.

Harry Truman, FDR’s successor inherited a more divided America. The Democrats had enjoyed nearly fourteen years in power, but Truman’s presidency faced a shifting change. In the midterm election of 1946 the GOP secured majorities in both the House and the Senate. Fifty-five seats changed hands in the lower chamber, and seated twelve more in the Senate. The public did not view Harry Truman in the same light as his predecessor.

There are other illustrative bi-elections to examine. For example, 1982, where the Democrats picked up 26 seats in the House, and seven in the Senate after two years of the Reagan Administration. And in 1994 Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” where the GOP picked up 54 House seats, and eights seats in the Senate. With that majority, Republicans worked to undermine the Clinton Administration. 

The midterms do act as a barometer of America’s political winds. A great deal is to be learned by analyzing voter turnout and the winners and losers. Political Parties can find where they stand with the people, and adjust accordingly.

In that light this last 2022 midterm spoke volumes as well. In a most unlikely scenario, where inflation and high gas prices, plus low poll numbers for our sitting president, the public rejected the GOP’s crazy MAGA’s. Yes a hand full of seats did shift the House, but barely. The former guy has clearly worn out his welcome, and voters have had enough of that sideshow. 

That he and his followers are oblivious to the temperament of the people makes no difference. The numbers don’t lie.

If this half-dozen, or so reelected extremists believe they have a mandate from the American people they are seriously mistaken. For next the two years the country will be forced to watch the same tiresome, noisy political antics they rejected at the polls.

You all are going to overplay your hands, and sink your party.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Newt Gingrich. He’s out of office and has time for your call.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Chumbley has also penned two historical plays, “Clay” on the life of statesman, Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an exploration of racism and slavery in America.

Broken

This was the situation in April, 1841. Newly inaugurated president, William Henry Harrison died after only a month in office. The 68-year-old Harrison apparently succumbed to pneumonia after delivering an exceptionally long inaugural address in foul weather. Harrison, the first Whig to win the presidency, was also the first chief executive to die in office, and the Constitutional protocol of succession had never before been exercised.

Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, moved quickly upon learning of the President’s demise. He located a judge to administer the oath of office, and moved into the White House. When members of Harrison’s cabinet informed Tyler they would take care of the daily business of governing, he cooly responded that they could either cooperate, or resign.

Tyler had been an odd choice for Vice President. The Whig Party had gelled during the Jackson administration, proposing financial and internal developments over sectionalism and states rights. The Whigs further found slavery not only inconsistent with liberty, but also an obstacle to the growth of a modern economy.

Foremost among the Whigs was the Party’s greatest voice, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay had first been a presidential candidate in 1824, and again in 1836. However, in 1840 when the Whigs met in Harrisburg, PA to nominate their candidate, Clay failed to gain the top spot, and then declined the offer of the vice-presidency. Clay later regretted his momentary pique.

Though John Tyler had been a Virginia Democrat, he had publicly broken with Andrew Jackson over Jackson’s misuse of presidential power. In particular, Tyler objected to Jackson’s threats against South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis, leading Tyler to forsake the Democrats, but not the philosophy of states’ rights, or the institution of slavery.

The Whigs decided that Tyler’s opposition to Jackson was good enough to offer him the second spot on the Whig ticket, and Tyler accepted. Then a month into his term, Harrison died, and this Southern Democrat, a wall-to-wall sectionalist assumed the presidency. 

From there, Whig policies quickly unraveled.

If the Whig’s aimed to realize their platform of national economic growth, their hopes died under President Tyler’s veto pen. Predictably, the Whig cabinet soon grew frustrated, then disgusted with presidential obstruction. Members began to resign. Only Secretary of State Daniel Webster hung on, as he was in the middle of boundary discussions with the British. Then he, too, submitted his resignation. Shortly after the cabinet fled, the Whigs formally expelled Tyler from the party.

To their credit the Whig leadership didn’t excuse Tyler, or defend his contrary actions. No one said ‘let Tyler be Tyler.’ They publicly broke and denounced the President’s antics, though the cost, for the Whigs, came due ten years later when they disbanded. 

Yet, the story doesn’t end with the demise of the Whigs, but begins anew with a stronger and more principled political movement. For, from the ashes came the birth of the Republican Party, much like a rising phoenix. And that party still exists today, for now. That is, if they haven’t already submerged their once decent name in the cesspool of Trumpism. 

*This post appeared in 2019. And now, in 2022, the GOP has formally forsaken all that was decent in the Republican Party. They now publicly support a coup attempt through silence and excuses, abandoning leadership of their party to propagandized fanatics.  

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight,” “Clay,” a play chronicling the life of Senator Henry Clay, followed by another, “Wolf By The Ears,” a study of racism and slavery.

gailchumbley@gmail.com