Monday, March 28, 2016

Progressive Republicans: When That Was a Thing

How GOP reformers challenged the rules and
overthrew Vermont's political establishment

We hear it every day. "America is in peril."  But this particular wording was part of the Republican Party’s 1936 national platform. 

Eighty years ago, the basic pitch was not so different: Unless Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his “Socialist” New Deal could be stopped the country was doomed. Yet, when the votes were counted that November, FDR was re-elected with the biggest Electoral College margin in a century. Only three states elected Republican governors.

One of the holdouts was Vermont, reliably Republican for more than 70 years. On the other hand, the state's new governor represented the Party’s progressive wing. 

By the 1930s George Aiken had built a loyal following as an author, horticulturalist, lecturer, and legislator. After five years in the state House of Representatives, he became lieutenant governor in 1935. But the Democrats were gaining ground in Vermont during the Great Depression, and Governor Charles Smith was a less-than-charismatic 68-year-old. Seeing an opportunity, Aiken broke the Republicans’ unwritten rotation system and challenged Smith after just one term. Organizing young Republicans, he barnstormed the state, and reached out to progressive Democrats like Burlington’s former Mayor James Burke.

On the other hand, Aiken criticized some aspects of the New Deal, and issued dire warnings about “the visible and invisible government in Washington, whose thoughts and actions are so alien to the free-thinking people of Vermont and of the nation; whose policy for the last four years has been one of debt and destruction.”

In some respects he was a limited government conservative, charging that an overreaching President was after “more and more control of all of us and our possessions and resources, public and private.” Another tried-and-true theme. On the other hand, he accepted the money that flowed from New Deal programs, supported Social Security and conservation efforts, and later, as a US Senator, was a key author of the Food Stamp program, which benefited both the poor and farmers. As one of few successful Republican governors in the 1930s Aiken called for changes in the national party.

By 1937 he was being talked about as a possible candidate for President, a push orchestrated by the publicity director of the National Republican Committee, Leo Casey, also a Vermonter. At a Lincoln’s Day dinner organized by the National Republican Club in 1938 Aiken spoke to the nation over the radio, the mass medium of its day. He shocked some Republicans with his assertion that Lincoln “would be ashamed of his party’s leadership today.” 

Two years later Wendell Wilkie won the Republican nod and went down to defeat as Roosevelt won a third term. But Aiken had a plan -- to move from governor to US senator.

He was close to one of the current  senators, Ernest Gibson, Sr., a respected long-term leader of Vermont's progressive movement, as well as Gibson’s son, who became Vermont Secretary of State soon after finishing law school. When Ernest Senior died in office in 1940 – he had been representing Vermont in Congress since 1923 – Governor Aiken appointed Gibson Junior to complete his father’s term. It was the beginning of an alliance that became known as the Aiken-Gibson Wing, liberal Republicans united by a moderate philosophy and distaste for the Party’s "big business" wing, the Proctor faction.

In Washington, Gibson Junior struck up a friendship with a Missouri Senator, Harry Truman, and irritated conservatives back home with his support of the New Deal. According to historian Samuel Hand, he was ultimately just keeping “the seat warm until Aiken mounted his own candidacy” for the Senate. By the time World War II was declared, Gibson had enlisted in the Army. Aiken meanwhile won the Republican nomination to replace him, beginning an illustrious 36-year run as US Senator.

But then, in 1943, something unpredictable happened: Gibson became a war hero in the South Pacific. His achievement was magnified by the national publication of a dramatic photo displaying his wounds. By the time he returned home he was a celebrity and a political inevitability.

In 1944, another Proctor, the third since 1878, became Vermont governor. Mortimer Proctor’s family had been a dominant political force in the state for half a century. Like Republicans before him, he had risen through the legislature and moved directly from Lieutenant Governor to the top state job. In following this path he was obeying the unwritten “mountain rule,” a geographical approach to power sharing in which the office of governor alternated every four years between the east and west sides of the state. With the winner always a Republican, it was a way to avoid factionalism and promote “orderly” succession.

But Gibson said it was time to end this “rule of succession.” Instead, he challenged Proctor as leader of a do-nothing “old guard.” Once Mortimer Proctor went down in the primary, effectively ending the family’s political dynasty, the general election was a breeze. Gibson not only won the support of most Republicans but also many GIs, populists, renegade Democrats and the state’s poor.

Delivering on his promises was a bit more difficult, since conservatives still controlled the state legislature. He did manage to increase human services, establish a minimum wage and a pension plan for teachers, and push through the graduated income tax. He also became “father” of the State Police – to the chagrin of county sheriffs. But success was illusive in areas such as public health and welfare.

Before most mainstream politicians, Gibson recognized that public health would inevitably be one of state government’s biggest responsibilities. Aiken liked his thinking and brought some of his ideas to Congress. But rank-and-file Republicans never bought into the agenda, and many resented the idea that state government’s role should expand to include things like public health and subsidized services for the poor. 

By 1949 Gibson was disillusioned and accepted appointment to a federal judgeship by his old friend, and now President, Harry Truman. Aiken remained in the US Senate until 1975, where he won respect as an independent thinker and fought for energy projects that brought more affordable hydropower to Vermont.

In the midst of the Vietnam War, a myth developed that Aiken had said the US should declare victory and bring the troops home. What he actually said was that the nation “could well declare unilaterally.” The US had “won” the war, he argued – as it turned out, erroneously – because its forces were “in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam."

He knew it was a far-fetched proposal, but offered this ironic defense: “Nothing else has worked."

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