TOPICS > Politics

Party Games

March 14, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Candidates Forbes, Dole, and Buchanan have to a certain extent embodied splits in the GOP that go back many years. For more on this, we turn to three NewsHour regulars, Presidential Historians Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson. They are joined tonight by James Reichley, a political scientist and Senior Fellow at Georgetown University. He is the author of the “Life of the Parties: A History of American Political Parties.” Welcome to all of you. Doris, you heard what Steve Forbes said about the requirements for a great party, that it had principles, ideas, and issues that resonate. The party was born as a party of principle, wasn’t it, it was born as a party devoted to stopping the spread of slavery into the new state?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Oh, absolutely. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed the Congress, which meant that slavery could expand into the territories, so those members of the Whig Party, the Democratic Party, and the Free Soiler Party got together as an anti-slavery principled group and formed a third party. The Republicanists started as a third party. They also had other principles besides anti-slavery, though. That was the umbrella that covered over everything, and that was that they wanted internal improvements for the farmers in the West, canals, railroads to be built. They wanted a high tower to protect the industrialists in the East, and they also wanted some sort of federal land grant program, so the farmers could get land in the West, so it was very principled at its founding, without a question.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And even then, Mr. Reichley, it united people with different interests, and it was dominant for more than half a century, wasn’t it?

JAMES REICHLEY, Political Scientist: Well, that’s correct. As Doris said, it brought together members of the other parties of the time. The Democrats and the Whigs were the Free Soil Party that had been set up for the purpose of abolishing slavery. Ultimately, the party was, I think, 80 percent drawn from the Whigs. They did–there was a famous meeting in the schoolhouse in Wisconsin, just about this time of the year in 1854, and a later participant said they went in Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers, and they came out Republicans, and they did form a party that was then dominant from the election of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President for about 60 years after that, I think one of the really major cycles in American political history.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael, the big changes came when? When did the big questions that have plagued the Republican Party for much of its history really start to come to the fore? In the 30’s?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, you see an enormous change in about 1930. That was the first election that was held after the Great Depression began, which began in 1929. The Democrats took both Houses of Congress. FDR was elected in 1932. And both the Congress of 1930 and Roosevelt when he ran in 1932 ran on a platform of government getting a lot more active, both to expand opportunity and also improve people’s lives. That had an enormous appeal in 1930 and ’32 that it may not have earlier because there were a lot of people in need, and I think you could make the argument, and I sure would, that really since then one of the central, if not the central question in American politics has been how active should the government be, particularly in the domestic economy and particularly in people’s lives. Now, in the 1990’s, the Republican Party has the view, as it always has, at least since the 1930’s that government should be less active, rather than more, and that is a point of view I would argue that has become probably near to being the majority in America, as it was not in the early 30’s.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Then in the post 30’s, the Republicans weren’t the dominant party, and then bring us a little more up to date.

HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Well, Jim was talking about 60-year cycles, and it’s true. You can take the last 60 years and you can say that’s the New Deal, progressive government now coming to an end. It is over now, and we’re grappling with something new. The Republican Party is the party of small business, and it’s a southern party. It’s a southern and southwestern party. The transformation, stunningly, from where it used to be, the Democrats to solid South, now it’s the Republicans that have the lock on the sunbelt states, the old Dixiecrats, and the rest, and it’s the Republican Party that used to preside over the Middle West and the industrial states and the Democrats are fighting, if they have a survival at all, it’s in those areas and the Far West.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And wasn’t 1964 crucial here?

MR. JOHNSON: That was the crucial time.


MR. JOHNSON: The split ideologically between the new Republican Party led by Barry Goldwater, entrepreneur, anti-government, independent, Southwestern in spirit and outlook very much opposed to the old Eastern banks and Nelson Rockefeller to Dewey, all those groups who really dominated the Republican Party, they challenged the Republicans. They won the nomination, and from that point on, you’ve had what you see emerging as the new party today. People who are in the party today are the heirs of Barry Goldwater. Ronald Reagan was the heir of Barry Goldwater. George Bush was a Goldwater person. All these people now have are the heirs of that new conservatism, very much anti-government, very much entrepreneurship, small business, and very much wedded to the new, emerging states in the South, where they have the greatest population and electoral votes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And yet, Doris, ’64 was the greatest defeat for the Republicans too. That’s what’s ironic about it.

MS. GOODWIN: Absolutely. In fact, what’s important to realize is that three great events I think have covered this whole period we’re talking about. The Civil War captured allegiances for the Republicans for nearly seven years because the South was solidly Democratic, but the rest of the country was Republican. But then came the Depression, as Michael said, and for such a long period of time, the Democrats held sway because the Republicans had been inadequate in their laissez-faire ideology to capture the needs of the economic people at that time, but then the 60’s came, and what you had, and we have to realize it, is the civilized act, the Civil Rights Movement, which was so important to the progress of the country, destroyed in many ways the Democratic Party in the South because it opened the door for the Republicans to get the disenchanted Democrats. Lyndon Johnson told me that when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, as extraordinary as that Act was, desegregating the South, he knew it was the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party. So you have those events that shape our lives in so many ways that begin to shape the parties as well, and from that moment on, even though Goldwater, as you say, lost disastrously, from that point on, the Republicans had a foot in the South. Indeed, he won five states in the South, and they would build that South, the financial centers of Houston, Dallas, and LA were growing, population was shifting to the South, and there was a backlash in the 60’s because of all the excitement of the 60’s and the riots, et cetera, that Agnew later was able to capitalize on with speeches written by Buchanan, by the way, that then became part of the social issues of the Republican Party so that they could combine the anti-civil rights and the social issues, and the economic conservatives and become a majority party.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Jim Reichley, the regional shifts are pretty clear, but there have been other shifts into the party, haven’t there? The Evangelicals, Catholics, these are other changes that are very important for this year.

MR. REICHLEY: Yes. That’s very true. The Republican Party is growing, and as it grows becomes more diverse. All the majority parties in American history, our country is itself so varied and diverse that in order for a majority coalition to exist it must include many different elements. The Republicans have been drawing in some groups that were forming not with them. At one time, as Haynes said, the Evangelicals in the South were solidly Democratic. They began swinging over in response to some of these social issues. One of their leaders once told me that they had stopped voting with the unions and started to vote with the Lord. Their economic interest had gone to the Democratic side, but they had been pulled over to the Republican side–the Catholics somewhat less so. Evangelicals went from being a Democratic group, devoting about 80 percent to Ronald Reagan in his second election, and have continued to be heavily Republican since then. Catholics are now about 50/50, but they used to be overwhelmingly Democratic, so that too marks a gain for the Republicans, but the result of this, this change, this broadening of the party, is there’s an opening for new kinds of appeals and new kinds of issues.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael, where does Bob Dole fit into this? He’s from my home state, Kansas. He’s from the high plains or the plains of Kansas. Long populist tradition, sockless Jerry Simpson and all kinds of people in Kansas, but he doesn’t quite fit into that tradition, where does he fit into this history?

MR. BESCHLOSS: He is, as you say, Elizabeth, not a sockless Jerry Simpson. He is someone who is in a way a bellwether of where the Republican Party has moved. Only 20 years ago this year, Gerald Ford was nominated for President in that very close race against Ronald Reagan that suggested Ford, who was in a way the candidate of that old Northeastern group, had just barely managed to edge out Reagan. He felt that his margin was so narrow that he should give Ronald Reagan some input on who his Vice President would be. He went to Reagan; he suggested a number of names. Reagan said as the most conservative on your list, I think you should nominate Bob Dole, so Bob Dole in the politics of 1976 was a conservative. The Republicans have moved so far in the last 20 years, and so has the country, that Bob Dole in, in a way is a little bit more the era of the Northeastern group, perhaps the Republican establishment, certainly the congressional establishment, and that has allowed someone like Pat Buchanan to come in from the right and make a very forceful appeal.


MR. JOHNSON: Dole has a far more interesting position today when you look in the context of where it was. He is now a creature of the government. He’s a deal maker. He’s someone that works within the system, making it work, and this is not where much of his party is going. You saw the debate on the Hill today, angry over immigration and, and the terrorism, real ugly splits within the party, and Dole is right in the middle. You say you’re from Kansas. He’s poised on both feet, right, the ground underneath him is right moving as he sits.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You think that we’re in the middle of a really historic change right now, right, we’re on the verge on it?

MR. JOHNSON: I do, and I think, you know–


MR. JOHNSON: Well, I think both parties are up for grabs. I don’t think the identity of either party is solid or secure, and when, when you heard Mr. Forbes saying that we could go the way of the Whigs, in fact, that’s what Bill Clinton was telling me two years ago. He was wondering if the Democratic Party wasn’t going the way of the Whigs, and you could make a case. There is no Democratic Party. There are five Democratic Parties. The Republican Party has been more unified, but it–you’re seeing the fissures within itself, so I think the whole idea of the political parties in the country, which have been stabilizing, important, giving ideology, consensus, for both we’ve been very lucky to have a stable government, for all these period of time, is now up for grabs, and I think the public reflects that. There’s new inter-party movement, third party movement, it’s all there.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you agree with that?

MR. BESCHLOSS: I do, and it used to be the case that you’d have a realignment perhaps once every 60 years or so, and that shows how stable American politics has been through most of our history. I agree thoroughly with Haynes. That is changing, and you may see huge groups in America moving back and forth among not only the two main parties but other parties or perhaps no parties, almost like a metronome and a much more volatile government and system which has its own very grave implications for a way of governing ourselves.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you agree with that, Doris?

MS. GOODWIN: Oh, absolutely, and I think the reason is, that this shift is possible, is because people are not attached emotionally to their parties the way they were in the past. In the old days your party was part of your entertainment, it was part of yourlivelihood, it was part of your patronage. You lived every day. 90 percent of the people in the 19th century were either Democrat or Republican, and they felt passionately about it, but nowadays, most people get their news from television. The conventions no longer pick the people; the primaries do. And you don’t even have to be a member of the regular party to run in the primary, it seems lately, so that the whole emotional and psychological hold that parties have is so much less today, and as a result, then people are much more up for grabs when somebody comes along like Forbes did, who seems like an outsider, absolutely no political experience. This could not have happened in the old, old days, when bosses picked the people, and yet, he can attract initially a following, because that loyalty is just no longer there in the same way.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, you heard what Michael and Haynes said about Bob Dole. Do you think that he can unite the party?

MS. GOODWIN: Well, I think he’s certainly a centrist enough that he is going to be able to make people on the right feel comfortable with him in terms of his stand on abortion, and the moderates are going to feel that he’s certainly better than the peasant pitchfork of Buchanan. So I think it’s possible that he can. The one thing we have to look at, though, is unlike the past, when Reagan was able to unite the party, Reagan tried not to make personal attacks on anybody. Those campaigns weren’t as negative as now. How do you bring Buchanan and Dole, who have been so angry, so negative toward one another, and just say, oh, I’m sorry, I forgive you, here I am? The other irony is somehow that Dole is considered the establishment candidate. That always used to be the Eastern guy who was the establishment. The Western guy was always the pitchfork peasant, and now you’ve got Buchanan who lives in the East and is more of the peasant from the past–from the West, and you’ve got Dole who’s looking like the Eastern guy. So it’s all screwed up in some ways. And whether these two forces and whether Buchanan can drop his anger and his movement and bring it to Dole, I’m not sure.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think? Can Dole unite the party?

MR. REICHLEY: Well, I think he can. As Doris says, he’s a centrist candidate. And all these things that we’ve been talking about have happened in earlier realignments. You look at the 1850’s and 1920’s, exactly the same kind of the break-up of parties seemed to be going on, third parties emerging, protests, a lot of disaffection, voting was down, actually the parties in Congress are more united than they’ve ever been. It’s remarkable what the Republicans, in particular, have been able to put together in Congress. Of course, Dole has played a large role in that. He’s a unifying force. I think Dole in many ways harks back to the old Bob Taft tradition in the Republican Party, except that unlike Taft, he is not an isolationist. He brings together one might say the Eisenhower and the Taft traditions and the Republican Party, which is a pretty powerful force among Republicans.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, gentlemen, thank you.