Memo from the American Whig Party
If the Republicans look to the history of their political ancestors, they’ll find two very compelling reasons to consider someone like Marco Rubio: one is based on something the Whigs did well, and the other is based on something the Whigs could not do.
The American Whig Party basically formed as a motley crew of opponents to Andrew Jackson. The Second Party System was, at bottom, a continued referendum on Jackson’s policies. A war hero, Jackson was simultaneously for a robust executive and limited government, particularly on economic issues, while his opponents wanted to use the tariff system to help build American businesses and raise money for infrastructure expenditures.
The intellectual dynamo and de facto leader of the Whig Party was Henry Clay. Clay ran for president 3 times: 1824, 1836, and 1844. Clay lost every time.
The only times the Whigs won? When they nominated famous generals. The only two victorious Whigs were William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. Harrison gained fame for his work fighting against indigenous peoples. Taylor gained fame from his work in the Mexican War. In other words, the Whigs used the Democrats’ playbook: nominate the famed war hero, and appeal to the masses. The 1840 “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign was, in a sense, all about out-Jacksoning Jackson’s party. It continued in 1848. Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln said as much: he viewed Henry Clay as his “beau ideal of a statesman,” but supported Taylor over Clay in 1848, for very pragmatic reasons:
Our only chance is with Taylor. I go for him, not because I think he would make a better president than Clay, but because I think he would make a better one than Polk, or Cass, or Buchanan, or any such creatures, one of whom is sure to be elected, if he is not.**
Truman Smith, a Whig Senator from Connecticut, was even more explicit in 1852, discussing Gen. Winfield Scott, the prospective nominee for the party (and another military hero). He intoned, “We are a minority party and cannot succeed unless we have a candidate who can command more votes than the party can give him. Every consideration which justified us in going for Taylor in /48 requires that we should go for Scott now.” (Holt, 673).
Military heroism no longer seems like a particularly significant electoral factor. Three of the past five elections have pitted presidents with strong military backgrounds against ones with no military experience (other than W’s Texas Air National Guard time), and all three times, the military heroes lost.
But in the age of television, the candidate’s age–and ability to project youthful vigor–has really made a difference. John F. Kennedy was only four years younger than Richard Nixon, but his appearance on television is widely considered to have made a difference; television made Nixon look sweaty and shifty, while it made Kennedy look polished and comfortable. More recently, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama benefited from facing substantially older opponents. Clinton, comfortably in his 40s, faced 68-year old George H.W. Bush (and then 73 year old (!!) Bob Dole). Obama, in his late 40s and now early 50s, faced 69 year old John McCain. In both cases, the Democratic candidates were able to make generational appeals. Clinton ran an ad that described Gore and himself–before anything else–as part of a “new generation of Democrats.” Barack Obama was even more explicit in his announcement speech:
I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness — a certain audacity — to this announcement. I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.
The genius of our founders is that they designed a system of government that can be changed. And we should take heart, because we’ve changed this country before. In the face of tyranny, a band of patriots brought an Empire to its knees. In the face of secession, we unified a nation and set the captives free. In the face of Depression, we put people back to work and lifted millions out of poverty. We welcomed immigrants to our shores, we opened railroads to the west, we landed a man on the moon, and we heard a King’s call to let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what’s needed to be done. Today we are called once more — and it is time for our generation to answer that call.
These messages work, particularly after years in a given political alignment. So the Republicans might consider making like the Whigs, and stealing their opponents’ playbook. The Whigs nominated military vets, following Jackson, for reasons of electability. Republicans today might want to consider nominating the youthful, vigorous candidate, to present a contrast against Hillary Clinton, who has been in the public eye for the better part of three decades.
It would be out of character for Republicans to go this route; they’ve nominated the older candidate in all but one election since 1972.
|1960||Richard Nixon||47||John F. Kennedy||43||+4|
|1964||Barry Goldwater||55||Lyndon Johnson||56||-1|
|1968||Richard Nixon||55||Hubert Humphrey||57||-2|
|1972||Richard Nixon||59||George McGovern||50||+9|
|1976||Gerald Ford||66||Jimmy Carter||52||+14|
|1980||Ronald Reagan||69||Jimmy Carter||56||+13|
|1984||Ronald Reagan||73||Walter Mondale||56||+17|
|1988||George H.W. Bush||64||Michael Dukakis||55||+9|
|1992||George H.W. Bush||68||Bill Clinton||46||+22|
|1996||Bob Dole||73||Bill Clinton||50||+23|
|2000||George W. Bush||54||Al Gore||52||+2|
|2004||George W. Bush||58||John Kerry||61||-3|
|2008||John McCain||69||Barack Obama||47||+22|
|2012||Mitt Romney||65||Barack Obama||51||+14|
Essentially, like the Whigs, the Republicans should consider emulating the successes of their opponents. But they also might want to learn from the Whig Party’s decline.
The Whig Party’s policy agenda was exhausted in the early 1850s. The Whig policy agenda essentially surrounded Clay’s American System: high tariffs needed to fund subsidies for the construction of major infrastructure projects. This was a persuasive argument, but the facts on the ground had changed by the 1850s. Michael Holt, perhaps the leading scholar of the American Whig Party, describes the situation as follows as follows:
Since 1849 the economy had been soaring even without Whigs’ governmental programs, primarily because of a huge increase in the specie supply fueled by the California gold strikes and by truly unprecedented British investment in the American economy. … Much of the British investment, in turn, went into railroad stocks and bonds, funding a spectacular construction boom that tripled the amount of track in operation from 6,000 to 18,000 miles between 1849 and 1854. Railroad construction itself had important stimulative multiplier effects. It provided markets for and thereby revived the previously prostrate iron and coal industries. It gave jobs to at least some among the swelling tide of European immigrants. It allowed cheaper and faster movement of agricultural goods and thus increased the productive acreage and profits of farmers.
Together these and other developments undercut the rationale for Whigs’ program and eliminated many of the specific issues Democrats and Whigs had fought over since 1837. (685-686)
So the Whig Party, founded essentially as a coalition of groups opposed to Jacksonian economics, had found its issues overcome by events. Exogenous shocks–namely the California gold rush and massive investment from Britain–had provided the capital that the Whig insisted needed to come from government. It never recovered. The Democrats thumped the Whigs in 1852, and the Whigs faded into nonexistence. As the old issues faded, the newly relevant slavery–Seward’s irrepressible conflict–and the role of the federal government in the territories, were the issues around which the next American party system was founded. The Whigs’ overall economic orientation largely dominated the new Republican Party–Lincoln even said that there was “no difference” between the Republican economic program and Henry Clay’s old program. But until the emphasis and the issue constellation changed, the Whigs were doomed.
(An aside: I suspect Lincoln might have been advised not to use that line after the fact. The Whigs, after all, were the minority party in the Second Party System, and the Republicans only had a majority with the support of Democrats who had opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Hence why Democrat Lyman Trumball, and not Whig Abraham Lincoln, won the Illinois Senate election of 1854.)
All of this is to say that there is a parallel between the Whig experience of the early 1850s and the Republican Party’s current situation.
Although marginal rate cuts were a welcome antidote to some of the economic problems of the 1970s, today’s economic issues will likely not be solved by moving the top rate down a few percentage points, and they call for different solutions. Even if marginal cuts were the right answer to today’s policy situation, the Republican focus on marginal rate tax cuts has been caricatured as tax cuts for the wealthy and does not poll well. Really, stagnant take-home pay and income insecurity are the main issues, and Republicans need to craft solutions to address those concerns. Most of the policy debate in the party currently is over a program that has been dubbed “reform conservatism,” which seeks to refocus the party on issues that they deem more germane to the current concerns of the broader American public.
The 1850s Whig platform is not quite analogous, but the fact is that it is quite arguable that part of the Republican Party’s difficulties in national elections over the last few cycles has been the party’s failure to put forward an agenda that matches the concerns of the population. “You didn’t build that!” was compelling for Republicans who love to tweak President Obama, but it wasn’t a message that resonated with the broader populace. Reform conservative Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry sums it up well: “2012 was a ‘Generic Republican’ campaign, and Generic Republican campaigns lose.” (Gobry’s piece incidentally, is probably the best description and defense of the reformocon program that I have seen online.)
Of all the declared candidates, Marco Rubio is the one most clearly on the side of the reform conservatives. He has been at the center of various reform conservative initiatives in the Senate, and his campaign site is already hinting at a similar agenda (though, in fairness, his issue pages have not yet been built out very much).
Rubio is also young and telegenic. He can draw the generational contrast with the older Hillary Clinton, emulating what Democrats did so successfully in 1960, 1992, and 2008.
The Whigs, then, might have argued that Rubio is the right nominee for the Republican Party.
**Lincoln’s speech against the Democratic nominee from 1848, general and expansionist Lewis Cass, is probably the most entertaining speech Lincoln ever gave. It is simultaneously uproarious and devastating. I unfortunately couldn’t come up with a way to fit it into the narrative, but that’s a far better read than anything else in this article.
***All citations of Michael Holt come from his The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Cover image from Wikimedia Commons, by N. Currier (firm) [Public domain].