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The Worst Sort of Fight Is Always a Family Affair

May 25, 1997|Bruce J. Schulman | Bruce J. Schulman, associate professor of history at Boston University, is the author of "Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism" (Bedford/St. Martin's)

BOSTON — Congressional Democrats rebelled against the White House last week. The party leader in the Senate, Sen. Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota, broke with the administration over abortion. More ominously, the leading House Democrat, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, denounced the balanced-budget agreement President Bill Clinton has made the centerpiece of his second term. "I don't believe this budget is fair," Gephardt declared early last week. "I don't believe it invests properly in the future of our country."

White House officials dismissed the revolt on Capitol Hill, noting that Daschle faced severe pressure from the Catholic bishop in his home state and Gephardt, a perennial candidate for the White House, has been spending an awful lot of time in New Hampshire lately.

But the administration would do well to heed the rebellion in its ranks. Throughout the nation's history, the anger of regional constituencies and the rivalries of presidential hopefuls have opened rifts within the governing party, bringing down presidents, derailing reform movements and altering the American political landscape.

In 1909, Theodore Roosevelt retired to hunt big game in Africa, passing the reins of presidential power to his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft. Old-guard leaders within Roosevelt's Republican Party cheered the dynamic reformer's departure; "Let every lion do its duty," one GOP conservative quipped. Taft soon renounced TR's commitment to activist government and Progressive reform. He fired Roosevelt's most-trusted lieutenants and restored the Republican old guard to power. When TR returned from his year-and-a-half safari, he attacked his former protege, denouncing Taft as a "fathead" and his policies as a betrayal.

Ego underlay the rift as much as ideology, as the antsy Roosevelt positioned himself to retake the White House in 1912. But GOP old-guard leaders easily quashed TR's insurgency, delivering Taft the nomination and forcing Roosevelt to launch a third party, the Bull Moose Progressives. Crippled by division, the Republicans lost two successive national elections; factional strife paralyzed the party on the state level. In the end, TR's defection turned the party over to the old guard, killed the Progressive wing within the GOP and eclipsed the reform movement that had dominated U.S. politics for more than a decade.

Still the GOP could never match its rival, the party of Clinton and Gephardt, in the annals of schism. During the age of Jackson, dissident factions within Old Hickory's Democratic-Republican Party bolted over a dispute concerning public finance and the proper role of the national government. Led by a disappointed aspirant for the presidency, the dissidents formed the opposition Whig Party and wrested the White House from Andrew Jackson's vice president and hand-picked successor in 1840.

A quarter century later, the Democrats split once more, this time over the fateful question of allowing slavery into the nation's western territories. The rupture between Southern and Northern Democrats ensured the victory of Abraham Lincoln in 1860; the election of a "Black Republican" prompted South Carolina to secede from the union and plunged the nation into civil war.

During the Roaring '20s, the Democrats self-destructed again, abandoning the electoral field to the GOP as the party's rural prohibitionist wing feuded with the big-city bosses and their "wet" immigrant constituents. The 1924 Democratic National Convention deadlocked for 17 days, as the hostile factions, sweltering in New York's un-air-conditioned Madison Square Garden, refused to compromise for 103 separate ballots before nominating an obscure Wall Street lawyer who appealed to neither camp. The fratricidal battle prompted Will Rogers' immortal assessment: "I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat."

A more substantial rift divided the party during the Great Depression. For five years, conservative Southern Democrats reluctantly swallowed Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, acknowledging the president's popularity even if they resented his increasingly reformist policies. Congressional Democrats finally choked in 1937, when "Dr. New Deal" tried to remove the major obstacle to his program by packing the Supreme Court with sympathetic justices.

Angered by his fellow Democrats' opposition to his court plan and their obstructionism on a wide range of legislation, Roosevelt took to the hustings in 1938 and actually campaigned against sitting members of his own party, including South Carolina Sen. "Cotton Ed" Smith and Georgia Sen. Walter George. But voters resented FDR's interference in local elections and returned their conservative Democrat representatives to Congress. The attempted purge only widened the breach within the party. When Smith suggested that FDR was his own worst enemy, the embittered George replied, "Not as long as I'm alive."

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