As we saw in the last posting on this subject, the 1912 presidential campaign was hotly contested, with five different parties fielding candidates. These were the usual Republican and Democrat Parties, but also the Progressive Party, the Prohibition Party, and two socialist parties, the Socialist Party of America and the Socialist Labor Party.
|Roosevelt the one to beat.|
The only reason the Populist Party did not run a candidate was because their only semi-viable candidate, William Jennings Bryan, threw in with the Democratic Party to avoid splitting the Democrats between the conservatives and the populists. Taft, whose only reason for running was to ensure that Roosevelt would not win, put the interests of his handlers on Wall Street above those of either the Republican Party or the country at large.
All in all, then, 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. Chafin and Reimer are not even remembered today. 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.
|William Jennings Bryan|
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.
Not that Taft had it easy. Vice-President James S. Sherman died in office on October 30, 1912, less than a week before the election. This left Taft without a running mate.
|"America First"? "League of Nations"?|
On October 14, 1912, while campaigning in Milwaukee, John Flammang Schrank, a saloonkeeper from New York, shot Roosevelt while he was on his way to make a speech. The bullet lodged in Roosevelt’s chest only after going through his eyeglass case and a fifty-page single-folded copy of his speech, “Progressive Cause Greater Than Any Individual.”
After ensuring that Schrank would not be killed by an angry mob, Roosevelt assured the crowd he was all right, and ordered police to take charge of Schrank and to make sure no one harmed him. He then delivered his scheduled speech, speaking for ninety minutes before finishing and getting medical attention. Roosevelt carried the bullet with him for the rest of his life.
Both Taft and Wilson suspended their own campaigning for two weeks until Roosevelt recovered and was able to resume his. When asked if the shooting would affect his election campaign, he said to the reporter “I’m fit as a bull moose,” which inspired the party’s emblem.
Roosevelt conducted a vigorous national campaign for the Progressive Party, a constant theme being the way the Republican nomination had been “stolen.” He called his platform “The New Nationalism” and called for a strong federal role in regulating the economy and chastising bad corporations.
|Worst campaign slogan EVER.|
For his part, Wilson supported what he called “The New Freedom,” a rather confusing admixture of laissez faire individualism and socialism, whichever his speechmakers thought would sound good to whichever group was being addressed. Left to himself, Wilson had focused on the tariff, until Bryan explained that he was boring prospective voters to death.
Taft could not really be said to have campaigned at all, being afraid of winning the election; he regarded his presidency as a personal nightmare. When he spoke at all, it was of the need for judges to be more powerful than elected officials (Taft ended as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; Louis Brandeis once commented that he could not understand how a man who made so many wise decisions on the Bench could have been such a bad president).
The departure of the progressive Republicans left the reactionary Republicans firmly in control of their party until 1916, when many of the progressives returned, the party having pretty much disintegrated as a truly progressive institution. Today “progressive” is usually a synonym for extreme radical. Ironically, much of the Republican effort was designed to discredit Roosevelt as a dangerous radical, but this had little effect, especially when real radicals like Debs and Reimer were showing just how radical a candidate could be.
|Win by condemning everybody|
Speaking of Debs’s campaign, the Socialists had little money; Debs’s campaign cost approximately $66,000, mostly for leaflets and travel to rallies organized by local groups. His biggest event was a speech to 15,000 supporters in New York City, where the crowd sang “La Marseillaise” and “The Internationale.”
Debs condemned “Injunction Bill Taft” and mocked Roosevelt, calling him “a charlatan, mountebank, and fraud, and his Progressive promises and pledges as the mouthings of a low and utterly unprincipled self-seeker and demagogue.” Debs insisted that the Democrats, Progressives, and Republicans were all financed by the corporations. Despite his efforts, the labor union movement largely rejected Debs and supported Wilson.
|The Wobblies promised an eight-hour day.|
Thanks to Taft and Bryan, Wilson won the election, and rewarded Bryan with the post of Secretary of State. Still, Wilson retained a large measure of suspicion of Bryan, as well as anyone else more ethical or intelligent than himself . . . which was pretty much everyone. 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?