- - Thursday, May 19, 2016


Only a month ago (a millennium in the era of social media and the hundreds of Internet “news” sites) the Republican Party was just about ready for an autopsy. The Grand Old Party was dead, rotting from the headless top, and Donald Trump was about to be buried by Hillary Clinton, perhaps by 60 points. Woe was all.

The capture of the leadership of the party by a billionaire populist television star, whose past smelled like Democrats, would destroy the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. The media and the respectable Democratic left tried to affect a noble sadness about it all. Gone were the rock-ribbed conservatives who were faithful to the dogma but usually couldn’t win elections on their own. Lincoln was the original usurper, organizing a new party to win election. Roosevelt was a populist and Reagan was a Democrat gone rogue.

The Trump takeover of the Republican Party looks a lot like the rout of the Republican elites by Wendell Willkie in 1940. A former Democrat and a Wall Street businessman from the utilities industry that was the target of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mr. Willkie stampeded the Republican convention in Philadelphia. He packed the galleries and intimidated the delegates below with noise, heat and enthusiasm.

As it turned out, Mr. Wilkie didn’t have a chance against FDR, despite the tradition, laid down by George Washington, against third terms. After he climbed out of the debris of the landslide, Wendell Willkie came to be regarded as a statesman, and joined Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan to upend the old-line isolationism of the Republicans and to lead the party, for better and worse, into the new world dominated by American economic power. But the party’s conservative core survived to fight another day.

The current crepe-hangers ignore history. FDR had come to power in 1932 with a very strange combination of forces, unlikely even for that time. The Democrats consisted of the segregationists and very, very conservative Southern Democrats, who preserved a tight control of Congress; big-city machines, largely built on immigrant Irish political wit; and the new urbanites who could be shepherded to the voting booth, and the Socialists and worse who relished the hard slugging that accomplished both policy formulation and implementation. A Hudson River squire pretending to be an aristocrat managed to hold it together.

With the divisions in the party restrained, the Democrats kept the White House and the House of Representatives, and usually the Senate, for almost five decades. If the Republicans can adapt to the new politics, with the chastened old guard in collusion with the newcomers, they might do it, too. It begs belief that even the most die-hard conservative ideologue will not come eventually to make common cause with Donald Trump, who appears to have the stuff to bring “moderates,” independents, and even a new crop of Reagan Democrats into a strengthened party. That’s the road to power and it’s what successful politics is about. Conservatives will persuade themselves that they can burrow from within to achieve conservative goals. Besides, the alternative is more of the Clintons. Nobody wants that.

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