Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Landon Lesson

Alfred M. Landon was the only Republican governor to be re-elected in 1934. That was the year of one of the greatest triumphs in the history of midterm elections, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his successful New Deal programs caused the Democratic Party to win sweeping victories in the Senate, House of Representatives, and virtually every gubernatorial race. Because Governor Landon of Kansas was the only Republican who seemed capable of withstanding the tide, the Grand Old Party chose to ignore his relative progressivism (he supported the New Deal in concept, and opposed only what he viewed as its fiscally wasteful execution) and selected him as their presidential candidate to oppose Roosevelt, then seeking his second term, in 1936.

Landon was by all accounts an intelligent, hard-working, and decent man. Roosevelt bore no ill will against him, either during or after the campaign, and his record of admirable achievement as Governor of Kansas was disputed by none. Yet near the end of the election, when Landon realized that his prospects for victory were dim, he betrayed the very progressivism that had helped stimulate his political activity in the first place, and instead made a hard turn to the right. While most Americans were well-known to oppose extreme conservatism (particularly after the zenith of its agenda brought about the Great Depression), Landon was nevertheless deluded by his zealous campaign manager, John Hamilton, into believing that the path of the core right was the right one to victory. The consequences of Landon's reactionary turn were most aptly summed up in the succinct conclusion of Irving Stone's Landon biography in "They Also Ran":

He said, in effect, "If you want a social visionary, count me out." They counted him out.

Landon's refusal to be the social visionary America so desperately needed in the 1930s led him to the losing end of the second greatest landslide in presidential election history. In the popular vote it was 60.8% (27,752,648) for Roosevelt compared to 36.5% for Landon (16,681,862). In the electoral college the results were even more one-sided - 523 electoral votes for Roosevelt compared to only 8 for Landon (he picked up the states of Maine and Vermont, while Roosevelt won the rest).

How is this story relevant today? I bring it up to illustrate one main point:

The Republican Party has a long history of liberalism. The guiding philosophies of great Republican leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, Robert La Follette, Theodore Roosevelt, Fiorello La Guardia, Margaret Chase Smith, and John Anderson (who eventually left the party and ran as a liberal Republican third-party candidate against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter) are far more consistent with progressive ideologies than the plutocratic, xenophobic, theocratic, racist, and socio-culturally reactionary beliefs which define the Republican Party today. Landon is an excellent example of a man who, at his political peak, was able to blend forward-thinking with the fiscal restraint and insistent on orderly progress that remain the finest distinctive attribute of the GOP. In order to win an election, he temporarily abandoned those values, and in an ironic bout of poetic justice wound up losing the election precisely because he abandoned said values. The same fate was suffered by his two successors, Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey, both of whom ran against Franklin Roosevelt in his subsequent bids for re-election, both of whom were well-known liberals when first nominated, and both of whom made turns to the right so hard that they were abandoned by the very public which realized that it had been abandoned by them.

The grand old Republican tradition that spans from Lincoln to Anderson, and today includes a few wayward souls (see Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe), still has a place in the American political world. Let us hope that they will remember the Landon Lesson so that they can reclaim it, not only for their own sake, but for that of the country.

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