If Joe Biden wants to win the presidency, the Democrat should study one of the nation’s most discredited Republicans: Warren Harding. With that, let’s go back in time a century to study the election of 1920 and what lessons it might hold for both parties today.
At first glance, the presidential campaign 1920 seems very dissimilar to the one unfolding here in 2020. The main feature of this year’s campaign is that there’s an incumbent seeking re-election. Whether that incumbent is Donald Trump or someone else, a campaign with a president seeking re-election is almost always a referendum on that incumbent’s first term. The year 1920 had no incumbent — Woodrow Wilson did not seek a third term, even though he privately wanted to. In many ways, though, the 1920 campaign was still all about Wilson — and that’s where both Biden and Trump strategists should take heed.
Here’s the short version: You know that old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times”? The Wilson years were interesting times. Wilson’s presidency brought a whirlwind of changes, and change is often controversial. There was the first federal income tax, the first federal estate tax, and you know how people feel about taxes. He overhauled the way the economy was run, by creating the Federal Reserve System, and regulating (and sometimes breaking up) big corporations — anti-trust laws, to be precise. And all that was before World War I, and definitely before his failed attempt to join the League of Nations. Historians still argue over all these things, and people certainly argued about them back then. Wilson was polarizing. Maybe not Trump-level polarizing but definitely polarizing. Wilson — much like Trump today with Twitter — also found new ways to communicate directly with the American people. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote a lot better than he spoke, had started sending his State of the Union addresses to Congress in written form. For more than a century, every president had followed suit. Many were dreadfully dull documents that read more like a corporate annual report than a rah-rah speech. Some even included charts and graphs. Ugh. Not Wilson. He decided to deliver his State of the Union addresses in person, commanding press attention merely by his presence in the House chamber. Oh, and Wilson — a widower — also got married while in office (to Edith Bolling of Wytheville). Wilson’s years in office were, if nothing else, dramatic. Perhaps a little too dramatic.
The point is by 1920 people were worn out from all the drama. Even fellow Democrats understood this. They privately discouraged Wilson from seeking a third term — having a stroke did not deter his ambition. They didn’t want his son-in-law, either. William McAdoo was both Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury and his son-in-law. Instead, Democrats labored through 44 agonizing ballots before nominating Ohio Gov. James Cox. Still, for better or worse, the Democratic Party in 1920 had to run on Wilson’s legacy.
More importantly for our purposes here, Republicans understood just how exhausted people were — from war, from Wilson, from everything else. Their nominee was also from Ohio — Ohio was a battleground then as it is now. Warren Harding had not been a particularly notable senator. He ran for president mostly to raise his political profile back home. Harding won the Republican nomination in much the same way that Biden won the Democratic nomination this year — through process of elimination. There weren’t many primaries then, but in the primaries that did exist, Harding got skunked just as Biden did in the early ones this year. He didn’t run as well as he hoped to in his native Ohio then finished a distant fourth in next-door Indiana. Harding was about to drop out but his wife grabbed the phone and told him to stay in the race. (This was the wife he routinely cheated on but that’s another story.)
Republicans back then had a sizable “progressive” faction — best exemplified by the trust-busting Theodore Roosevelt, who was constantly at odds with the more conservative factions in his party. Roosevelt, though, was dead, and his progressive successors were considered far too progressive to be acceptable to Republican leaders. Harding was not the most exciting candidate in the field, but he was the candidate most acceptable to a broad swath of Republican convention delegates. To the surprise of almost everyone, Harding won the nomination.
Here’s where we get to the main point: Harding didn’t make any extravagant campaign promises. Instead, he’s famous for declaring his goal was a “return to normalcy.” That wasn’t a real word, but Harding — much like Biden — was famous for mangling the English language. That one stuck. Harding’s full quote went like this: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.” Cut that last phrase — Harding, like Trump, was skeptical of anything international — and you basically have the Biden campaign. Biden isn’t promising the “revolution” that Bernie Sanders wanted. Instead, he’s offering a “return to normalcy.” We’ll see in November how voters feel about that. In 1920, though, that’s exactly what voters wanted. Harding won in a landslide. He even carried Tennessee with 51% of the vote — the first time a Republican had won any Southern state since Reconstruction. This was the first slight crack in “the Solid South” that eventually shattered the Democrats’ hold on the region until the pieces reformed to create a “Solid South” for today’s Republicans. Virginia remained solidly Democratic that year but every county west of Roanoke County except one voted for Harding, a sign of how Southwest Virginia has always been politically estranged from the rest of the state. That one exception was Pulaski, which went 51% to 48% for Cox. Harding’s best locality was Floyd County, where he took 72% of the vote, followed by Carroll County at 66%.
We remember Harding today as a pretty terrible president, best known for the Teapot Dome scandal, his affair with a secretary and ultimately dying in office. We forget that when Harding first took office, he was wildly popular. The nation was relieved to have a president they thought was boring. Democrats this year hope voters haven’t changed in a century; Republicans hope they have.
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