Lewis Gould traces the history of the Republican party . . .

Books: Lives of the parties

November 02, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff

The master strategist of George W. Bush's rise to power, Karl Rove, is also a student of history. In the spring of 1998, while planning Bush's presidential run, Rove arranged to take a tutorial from historian Lewis L. Gould of the University of Texas. Subject: the 1896 election.

Professor Gould was apparently an influential tutor. Shortly after completing the course, Rove revved up the Bush presidential machinery, and threw it into reverse -- all the way back to the Gilded Age. The candidate stayed home, and the campaign came to him. A parade of Republican dignitaries from around the country was marched, in a Rove-engineered show of strength, to the governor's mansion in Austin. There, Bush pitched his candidacy, and won pledges of support. It was a maneuver straight out of 1896, when William McKinley gave more than 300 speeches, to three-quarters of a million listeners, from the front porch of his house in Canton, Ohio.

It is no small wonder that a modern strategist, particularly one who openly talks of building a Republican majority that will endure for decades, might self-consciously model a campaign after 1896. As Gould explains in his comprehensive Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans (Random House, 624 pages, $35), that contest was a turning point in the nation's political development.

The election ended a prolonged period of partisan stalemate and launched an era of Republican dominance. McKinley was the architect of a durable coalition of Northern urbanites, farmers, industrial workers and most ethnic groups. For the next 36 years, with one interruption, the Republicans were the majority party in every corner of the country outside the solidly Democratic South.

Throwbacks like Bush's front-porch campaign aside, however, there are few similarities between today's Republican Party and its 19th-century ancestor. While Republicans have won most presidential elections over the last 50 years, there is no clear evidence of an emerging Republican majority. The nation is evenly divided between the two major parties, and independent voters have been the fastest growing part of the electorate.

With a historian's perspective and a social critic's eye, Gould traces the party's evolution since its founding 149 years ago -- an almost complete reversal, over time, in its ideology and electoral base. But what appears, at first glance, to be a traditional historical narrative is more than that.

Grand Old Party is, in some ways, an unconventional history, and a cut above the usual academic fare. The chronicle is spiced by commentary, for example, on the revisions that scholars, including Gould, have made in the Republican Party's historical reputation and those of its leaders.

Drawing on his work as a presidential historian, including The Modern American Presidency (University Press of Kansas, 296 pages, $29.95), a study of the governing styles of presidents from McKinley through Bill Clinton, he assesses the changing fortunes of Republican executives, alive and dead. Thus, Richard Nixon turns out to have resigned "in temporary disgrace." By the time of his death in the mid-1990s, he had "largely succeeded" in rebuilding his reputation (though he is still "unlikely" ever to become a Republican hero, because of the permanent disgrace of the Watergate scandal).

If Gould were redesigning Mount Rushmore for Republicans only, he would put Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan next to the two Republicans already there: Abraham Lincoln, who "remains preeminent among all the people who have marched under the Republican banner," and Theodore Roosevelt, "now overshadowed in Republican lore."

Reagan was a "transcendent" Republican leader, "the embodiment of all the modern GOP virtues," who "continues to rise within the political pantheon" and is now seen by the party "as its greatest president and most important single leader," according to Gould.

But, under Reagan, Republicanism became "palatable, easy and painless. That is why the Reagan Revolution left so much of the American political landscape unchanged." Reagan's belief in cutting taxes and increasing defense spending may have become the distinguishing characteristics of Republican ideology, and inspired the current president, but Reaganite conservatism "makes no demands and enforces no responsibilities" and is "largely a rhetorical posture."

The book's most contentious argument concerns what he sees as the Republican Party's unhealthy attitude toward its main adversary. To Republicans, the stereotypical Democrat is "a necessary evil and sometimes ... just evil and traitorous." Some Republicans would like to gain total domination of the American political system, through the "unconditional surrender and eventual complete disappearance" of the Democratic Party. It is not clear, Gould concludes darkly, "whether modern Republicans really believe in the two-party system as a core principle of politics."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.