There is a wide-open field on the Republican side for the presidential nomination, with at least a half dozen serious contenders, while the lame duck Democrat in the White House, one of the most polarizing figures in modern American politics, struggles with foreign policy challenges which have emboldened his fierce critics in both parties and submerged his domestic agenda. The foreign policy challenges involve questions about the effectiveness of military aid in bloody conflicts that may, or may not, involve strategic American interests, as well as the proper response to brutal foreign dictators determined to expand their influence in central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The incumbent in the White House, elected with promises of “hope and change,” has lost his once large majorities in both houses of Congress and, while he remains a profoundly talented communicator and is still popular with many voters, others have grown tired of his aloof manner and the fact that he surrounds himself with a tiny corps of advisors who tend to shut off competing points of view. Even his wife can be a polarizing figure with some criticizing everything from her priorities to her wardrobe.
A fragile economic recovery continues to sputter along, while memories remain fresh of an economic collapse that rivals anything that has happened in three-quarters of a century. Half the country blames Wall Street, eastern bankers and the well-heeled for the economic troubles, while the other half laments excessive regulation, increasing debt and bloated federal government that is constantly expanding its role in American life. The country is deeply divided by race, class and religious differences.
The year is…2016? No…actually 1940.
The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime…Not Really…
The claim heard every four years that “this is the most important election in our lifetime (or in our history), it is, of course, nonsense. We don’t have “critical elections” every four years, but in fact have really only had a handful of truly “critical” elections in our history. In my view the two most important were 1864, when Abraham Lincoln defeated George McClellan thereby ensuring that the great Civil War would be fought to its ultimate end and achieve its ultimate goal, the abolition of slavery, and 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with long-established political tradition and sought and won a third term. Roosevelt’s election, although it would have been hard to see clearly at the time, sealed the involvement of the United States in World War II and ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.
Those two elections (you could add 1860 to the list, as well) had serious consequences that still echo today, the 1940 election particularly since it does have many parallels with what voters will face when they make a choice about the White House in 2016.
Arguably the field for the Republican nomination hasn’t been so completely wide open since 1940. In that election, as today, the GOP was a divided party between its more establishment wing – represented by New Yorker Thomas Dewey – and an insurgent element represented by the party’s eventual nominee in 1940, Indiana-born, former Democrat Wendell Willkie, a true dark horse candidate. The party was also split into isolationist and internationalist camps, with Willkie the leader of the later and Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan leading the Midwestern, isolationist element.
As Many GOP Contenders as 2016…
Ten Republican candidates that year captured at least twenty-eight convention votes, with Dewey leading on the first ballot with 360 votes, still far below the number he would need to win the nomination. The Republican candidates, not unlike today, were a broad and opportunistic bunch ranging from names lost to history – the governor of South Dakota Harland Bushland, for example – to shades of the past like former President Herbert Hoover who amazingly thought he was a viable candidate eight years after losing in a landslide to Roosevelt in 1932.
Dewey lost support on every subsequent ballot, while Willkie and Taft steadily picked up steam. As Charles Peters has written: “To Republicans who liked Franklin Roosevelt’s sympathy for the allies but had a low opinion of his economic policy, Willkie began to look like an interesting presidential possibility. This group was not large in early 1940, but it was highly influential,” not unlike the “establishment wing” of the GOP today, which is tentatively coalescing behind Jeb Bush.
Finally on the sixth ballot Willkie commanded the votes needed to win the nomination and face the man who was the real issue in 1940 – Roosevelt.
By the time the Democrats convened for their convention in Chicago on July 15, 1940 (the Republicans met in Philadelphia in June), few besides FDR knew his intentions with regard to the “no third term” tradition. I’m convinced Roosevelt had decided much earlier to seek another terms, but the master political strategist wanted it to appear that his party was “drafting” him rather than as if he was actively seeking the nomination again.
Roosevelt dispatched his very politically astute wife, Eleanor, to Chicago to subtly, but unmistakably make the case for her husband. It worked and the Democratic Party rushed to embrace FDR – again. This whole story is wonderfully told in Charles Peters’ fine book Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing ‘We Want Willkie!’ Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World.
FDR of course, went on to win the pivotal election of 1940, a rare election in American political history that turned primarily on foreign policy issues. Remarkably, both candidates endorsed the creation of a peace time draft in the middle of the campaign and Roosevelt and Willkie differed only in the most nuanced ways over the big question of whether and how the United States would provide aid to Britain as it struggled to hold off a Nazi invasion and eventually return to the offense against Hitler.
The 1940 campaign, like most political campaigns, had its share of pettiness and overheated rhetoric. Roosevelt was denounced as a “warmonger” and a dictator who would do anything to prolong his hold over the country’s politics. Willkie, a wealthy utility executive who made much of his small-town Indiana upbringing, was derided as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” so dubbed by Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. It was an open secret that Willkie had a long-time romantic relationship with a woman not his wife, but Roosevelt and the Democrats dare not raise the issue for fear that the “marriage of convenience” between FDR and Eleanor, not to mention the president’s own indiscretions, might become an issue. This would not be a John Edwards or Gary Hart campaign.
The 1940 campaign did involve two talented and serious candidates who openly discussed the big issues of the day and once the voters had spoken, Roosevelt and Willkie put aside personal animosities and linked arms for the good of the country – and the world.
Barack Obama won’t be running for a third term next year. Republicans made certain that would never happen when they recaptured control of the Congress after World War II and adopted the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, but Democrats will be, in effect, seeking a third term with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton carrying the party banner.
Perhaps all – or almost all – politicians tend to look better in hindsight than they do when they are grubbing for votes, but it would be hard to argue that any of the contenders in either party today could hold their own on a stage with the major party nominees in that pivotal year of 1940.
The stakes were very high that year and Americans had their pick between two serious, quality candidates. Here’s hoping history repeats next year. Looking at the field I have my doubts.
There are at least three other recent fine books about the election of 1940 – Richard Moe’s Roosevelt’s Second Act, Susan Dunn’s 1940 – FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler: The Election Amid the Storm and Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days. All are highly recommended as great political history.