Yesterday we finished looking at the four (or, depending on how you’re counting, four-and-a-half) major candidates during the presidential campaign of 1912 — the first and (to date) the last time two third party candidates had a significant impact on the campaign. The Republican candidate was William Taft, the Democratic candidate was Woodrow Wilson (and William Jennings Bryan), the Progressive Party candidate was Theodore Roosevelt, and the Socialist Party candidate was Eugene Debs.
|No, Donkey and Elephant, Theodore wasn't the one who changed.|
Roosevelt was clearly the man to beat. Taft had all but announced that he was hoping people would only vote for him to prevent Roosevelt from being elected. Debs was not truly a viable candidate. Only the union of Wilson’s elitist conservatism and Bryan’s populism, overlaid with a veneer of superficially progressive goals, had any hope of defeating Roosevelt.
Bringing together Wilson and Bryan was a masterstroke, as Bryan (a consummate, albeit ethical politician) realized early on when he supported Wilson’s nomination. By stressing party unity above all else, and capitalizing on the Republican split, there was a chance that the Democrats would regain the White House after a sixteen-year hiatus.
Had the Democrats not done this, the party would have fragmented even more quickly than had the Republicans. Bryan was the one responsible for keeping the progressive Democrats, the populists, and the moderate socialists in the fold of the faithful.
Wilson would have retained the conservatives and reactionaries, but the moderate socialists would have fled to Debs (and some did), while the progressives and populists would have gone to Roosevelt. As it was, a significant minority of progressive Democrats and populists did, in fact, go to Roosevelt, but it was not enough to shift the election in his favor given Taft’s spoilsport candidacy.
|Aldrich: had both Taft and Wilson in his pocket.|
Wilson won the election, and rewarded Bryan with the post of Secretary of State. As invaluable as the Great Commoner’s help was in getting Wilson elected, however, Wilson seems to have retained a large measure of suspicion of Bryan. Having been elected on the strength of promised reforms, especially of the financial system still controlled by Aldrich and his cronies, Wilson began waffling.
This was astounding. It suggests that Wilson was so far removed from political, economic, and social reality as to make one wonder what he was doing in the Oval Office. The papers of Carter Glass alone, deposited at the University of Virginia, contain thousands — yes, thousands — of letters from prominent people across the political spectrum written from December 1912 to February 1913 demanding reform of the financial system.
The country was in serious danger, and something had to be done. The question was, would the measures taken be adequate, and (even if adequate) could they be sustained?#30#