, Newburyport, MA

February 18, 2013

A shift in presidential tense

As I See It
Jack Garvey

---- — Of all the dubious claims last year, the most deceptive went unnoticed.

The film may have awakened us. Instead, Steven Spielberg delayed the release of “Lincoln” to avoid charges of trying to influence the election.

No matter. Democratic victories across a country recoiling from Tea-publican extremism rendered that decision as moot as it was ironic.

Like many of history’s persistent illusions, it’s true on the surface: Abraham Lincoln was our first Republican president.

But not when stretched over 150 years into: “Republicans are the party of Lincoln.”

That shift in verb tense begs the question. To answer it, let’s do the time warp again:

Or let’s risk whiplash watching Republicans portrayed, according to one film review, as “a shaky coalition of radicals, centrists and conservatives, while the Democrats have a similar mix of grandstanding obstructionists and quiet realists.”

That the names need only be swapped to describe them today is beyond argument, although here, east of the Hudson, some will insist that “conservative Democrat” is a contradiction in terms.

Presidential elections, starting with 1876, offer an outline of what historians call “the ideological shift.”

New York Gov. Samuel Tilden, the Democrat, handily wins both popular and electoral votes on first count, largely due to Southern Democrats who chafe under Reconstruction.

Before certification, however, Republicans prevail on outgoing President U.S. Grant to withdraw federal troops from Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida in return for a flipped vote certified by three Democratic governors.

Presto! Ohio Gov. Rutherford Hayes rides a winning margin of one electoral vote into the White House.

Call it the first step on a century-long Republican path to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign against civil rights and Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victories throughout Dixie over Southerner Jimmy Carter—save Carter’s native Georgia.

Biggest step was Theodore Roosevelt’s bolt four years after leaving office.

To say that he made Republican financiers and hacks nervous is comical. He made everyone nervous. But he called their “reform” bluff by forming the Progressive Party — aka “Blue Moose” — and ran against Republican incumbent President Taft in 1912.

Had Democrats nominated one of their hacks, as TR calculated, he’d have won. Instead, they ran another reformer, N.J. Gov. Woodrow Wilson.

Hence, rather than a third party cracking the two-party system, Democrats absorbed TR’s progressive Republicans.

By 1920 conservative Democrats felt betrayed by the Virginia-born and Georgia-bred Wilson — much like fundamentalists by the born-again and well-bred Carter 60 years later. They swung the USA into three roaring Republican routs.

And headlong into the Great Depression. Who but FDR could better identify the Democrats with Main Street and Republicans with Wall Street?

Still, by clinging to Jim Crow’s segregation, Dixiecrats ceded what we now call “inclusiveness” to Republicans.

In 1948 Republicans might have cashed in with headlines already hot off a Chicago press: “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Overlooked was a 37-year-old upstart Minneapolis mayor who hammered civil rights into the reluctant Democrats’ party platform. Yes, Dixiecrats split for a third party bid behind Strom Thurmond, but disillusioned progressives returned.

Karma? That same man, Hubert Humphrey, would lose a presidential bid 20 years later to a “brilliantly Machiavellian scheme that became known as Nixon’s Southern Strategy.”

Hello Spiro Agnew!

Curtis Wilkie’s memoir, “Dixie,” adds that Richard Nixon’s infamous 1972 re-election campaign included two Supreme Court nominations of Southern segregationists, a deliberately doomed dual stunt to turn Dixiecrats into Republicans.

Last year Rick Santorum had them in mind, as have both Ron and Rand Paul, when he cited 1965 — the Civil Rights Act, specifically public accommodations and employment opportunity — as the year America lost its way.

Last month, when the Republican-controlled House delayed funds for Hurricane Sandy relief, the geographical divide sharpened the political.

Since Nixon, every electoral map shows that the ideological shift since Lincoln is complete and secure.

Most of them resemble inversions of 150-year-old maps used during what Lincoln himself called “a war upon the rights of all working people,” a description that today nails Republican state house agendas from Maine to Arizona, from Wisconsin to Florida.

What’s that old saying about history? Just because the deception didn’t work last year doesn’t mean it won’t work next.

And you know it’s coming soon to an election near you.


Jack Garvey of Newbury can be reached at