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The great GOP spat -- of 1916

October 23, 2005|Ralph E. Shaffer | RALPH E. SHAFFER is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona. E-mail: reshaffer@csupomona.edu.

THE CURRENT spat between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Bush echoes a California discord that contributed to the Republicans losing the presidency in 1916. A lesser prize is at stake this time -- the governor's initiatives -- but rankled feelings may end with conservatives losing another November election.

Schwarzenegger's refusal to join the president at a Ronald Reagan Presidential Library ceremony, and Bush's rejection of the governor's plea to postpone a local fundraiser until after next month's special election, made national as well as local headlines. Neither man blinked, although their sagging popularity cries out for compromise and cooperation within the Republican ranks.

On the eve of the 1916 presidential election, California Gov. Hiram Johnson and Charles Evans Hughes, the GOP presidential candidate, exhibited similar obstinacy. It ended in a stunning defeat for Hughes, who expected to carry a heavily Republican California but instead lost the state and the election to Woodrow Wilson by a handful of votes.

Progressive Republican Johnson, a popular reform governor who was a candidate for the state's U.S. Senate seat that November, was not a favorite of the more conservative wing of his party. He faced opposition in the GOP primary from mossbacks who rejected his efforts toward social and economic change. That August, Hughes made major speeches in California. At the same time, Johnson was furiously campaigning throughout the state in a close fight for his party's senatorial nomination.

In mid-August, Hughes and Johnson spent several days in L.A. County. Taking a break from the campaign, Hughes made a quick trip to Long Beach, staying at the Virginia Hotel. Johnson had already checked in at the Virginia, and when word reached him that his party's presidential candidate was there, he expected a courtesy call from him. But Hughes left without meeting with Johnson, a slight that irritated the progressive wing of the party.

The Times, an ardent supporter of Hughes and critic of Johnson's progressive Republicans, neither reported Johnson's campaign visit to Southern California nor Hughes' snub. But other papers did. During the remaining two months of the campaign, Hughes' seemingly insurmountable Republican majority evaporated. Among the reasons was his gaffe, which apparently turned off many would-be Republican voters.

(That wasn't all that hurt Hughes. When he crossed a picket line in San Francisco, he made certain that the media were aware that he had intentionally done so. In an industrializing state, voters turned to Wilson, a more labor-oriented candidate.)

Johnson won the Senate race. Hughes lost California -- and the presidency -- by less than 4,000 votes.

The Schwarzenegger/Bush brouhaha, occurring in the midst of sagging poll numbers for both men, further weakens their appeal. The governor's initiative proposals, already in trouble with the voters, may have suffered a fatal setback. The lame-duck president is fortunate not to be on the ballot this fall.

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