With the unbridled enthusiasm of Eeyore, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is attempting to herd angry constitutional conservatives, tea partiers and libertarians back into the Party fold. Good luck with that. It’s been a long time coming, but presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump looks to be the last straw for the Grand Old Party, the one that will likely and finally break the tired pachyderm’s back.
The Whig Party was formed by Henry Clay, partly in opposition to President Andrew Jackson. The Whigs objected to Jackson’s abuses of presidential power and even called him “King Andrew”. The charge sounds kind of like today’s tea party Republicans railing against President Obama’s use of executive orders to go around Congress. And like modern Republicans, the Whigs were demonized by their opponents for supposedly supporting the interests of big business and the wealthy.
The Whigs weren’t a fringe party. They elected four presidents, and won nearly half of all gubernatorial elections in the 1840s. But it didn’t take long for internal disagreements on the issue of slavery to begin to tear the party apart. The Compromise of 1850, which addressed the expansion of slavery into new territories, infuriated abolitionist Whigs so much so that they managed to block President Millard Fillmore from getting his own party’s nomination for reelection. The split handed the presidency to Democrat Franklin Pierce.
Just four years later, the party had virtually disappeared. Some of the displaced Whigs joined the southern Democratic Party, which at the time supported slavery and states’ rights. In the north, most flocked to the fledgling Republican Party that would ultimately elect Abraham Lincoln. A few joined the short-lived American Party, but never gained any electoral success. Going from having a president in office to being virtually extinct in four years is hard to imagine, but that’s what can happen when a governing coalition so dramatically fractures.
Today, it seems like a similar thing is happening with Republicans. What, exactly, does the GOP stand for? Since Ronald Reagan, Republican rhetoric has defended free enterprise, fiscal responsibility and constitutional limits on government power. But the growing gap between Republican political rhetoric and their actual performance in office seems to have finally fractured that voting coalition. Should Republicanism be about limited government, and economic and personal liberty? Or will Donald Trump’s splenetic populism, the kind that embraces protectionism and the aggressive use of executive branch interventions into market decisions, represent a new political coalition?
Liberty voters, the ones that once made up the core of the Grand Old Party, are now politically homeless. Will they migrate to the Libertarian Party, or will a new political platform for constitutional conservatism emerge?
Meanwhile, the Republicans whig out. As Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican President, once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
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