John Weaver, an experienced GOP political operative and former top advisor to John McCain, says his party’s presidential field is “the weakest Republican field since Wendell Willkie won the nomination on the sixth ballot in 1940.”
Weaver is an student of political history and he may be right about the strength of the GOP field, but he is also advising former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, so a skeptic might accuse him of diminishing the entire field to make his “outsider” – an outsider not unlike Willkie – look more electable.
Willkie, a progressive – today he’d be an unnominatable Republican moderate – was an Elwood, Indiana native, a lawyer and a Wall Street utility executive. (Well, one out of three ain’t bad when you are trying to deny Franklin Roosevelt an unprecedented third term.) Willkie was the ultimate dark horse in 1940; not much of a candidate – he had once been a registered Democrat – but he was an impressive man. He had the misfortune of running in a year when the only real issues were the war in Europe and FDR’s try for a third term.
One keen observer of the 1940 election, Democratic National Chairman Edward J. Flynn, told Willkie’s biographer, Steve Neal, that “one of the main reasons for Willkie’s defeat was the lack of support given him by regular Republican organizations. The organizations certainly did not want him to be nominated…unquestionably they left the convention with no kindly spirit toward their candidate.”
Flynn, an old political pro, said Willkie made a classic mistake in 1940 – he ignored or rejected his base. “He took every opportunity the could,” Flynn said, “to insult directly or indirectly the politicians of the Republican party. That course of action never wins an election, and it can certainly help to lose one.”
Willkie was caught between an old-line Republican party in 1940 that wanted desperately to repundiate Roosevelt’s New Deal, but also had to deal with public anxiety about the worsening world situation. France collapsed under the Nazi onslaught during the summer of this long ago election year. Britain turned to Winston Churchill to try and avoid the same fate. The country adopted, with Willkie’s full support, the first peace time draft in its history even as Americans were torn between FDR’s policy of creeping intervention in the European war and a burning desire to simply stay out of another world war.
With opinion polls showing Willkie closing on Roosevelt, FDR uttered a few words on the last weekend of the campaign in Boston that would haunt the rest of his career: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again; your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” It was a coldly calculated statement on Roosevelt’s part designed to reassure skittish voters worried about war and it worked.
FDR won 55% of the vote and an Electoral College landslide of 449 to Willkie’s 82. Willkie won his home state of Indiana and just nine other mostly Midwest and western states.
As losing presidential candidates go, Wendell Willkie has been treated pretty well by history. Although he made sharply partisan attacks on Roosevelt during the campaign he was not a red meat candidate. He even later admitted that some of his attacks were launched against the incumbent because politics demanded such things and he enthusiastically embraced FDR’s foreign policy after the election.
The current restiveness among many Republicans about the strength of the GOP field may – big qualifier – may provide an opportunity for a completely fresh face in 2012, the kind of fresh face that Willkie presented in 1940. That said, the timing and nature of modern campaigns makes it seem nearly impossible that a candidate who has gotten organized and out of the gate within the next couple of months could possibly win enough early primaries to capture the nomination. Willkie won the nomination at the 1940 convention when delegates just couldn’t warm to the more conventional GOP canddiates, including Robert A. Taft, Thomas E. Dewey and Arthur Vandenberg.
Amazingly Willkie only switched his formal party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in January of 1940 and he still got the nomination. Not likely such a thing could happen today and a brokered convention any more is virtually out of the question.
Hardly a dark horse, but certainly a fresh face compared to Huckabee, Romney, Gingrich and company, former Gov. Huntsman has now made his own conversion. He quit working for the Obama Administration more than a year before the nominating convention. In the weakest field in 70 years, is he the fresh face of 2012?