Are the Republicans a Party?

by John W. Owens | March 19, 1924

IT is so easy to perceive decay in an old political party that the very fact causes doubt of the value of the evidence. Yet, it is impossible for one to observe at close hand the conduct of the Republican party in the tax fight in the House, following the record of the party for years past, without seriously asking whether that party is not disintegrating—not merely with respect to its immediate problems, but permanently; not merely as it is being killed in this Congress by the La Follette balance of power, but permanently as the virile, affirmative organization which governed the country for half a century.

The responsible leadership of the party committed itself as definitely as leadership could be committed to one major policy in this session, the Mellon tax plan. In that committal it had behind it the great opinion-creating and opinion-producing agencies of the country east of the Mississippi River, the newspapers, the magazines, the various kinds of associations of business people. And perhaps never in the history of the country has a policy projected under such auspices and with such support suffered such complete collapse. It virtually collapsed on the first day that organized opposition was breathed.

Mr. Longworth, the party leader in the House, whose long service gives him an intuitive sense of the practicable, surrendered when the first gun was fired by the Democrats. For days he sought compromise with the Democrats, using to the full his personal intimacy with Mr. Garner, leader of the Democrats in tax legislation. When that undertaking failed, Mr. Green, Republican chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, sought compromise with the La Follette group. That undertaking failed because the Mellonites would not accept the compromise terms suggested by the La Follette group. The Republican majority of the committee, mostly a carefully selected group of extreme conservatives, then brought out the Mellon income rates. Mr. Longworth immediately sought compromise again, anyway, anyhow.

His efforts continued for days. When the House was dealing with the bill in committee of the whole, the efforts were so futile that no compromise was offered, and in the voting on income rates choice was left between the Democratic and the Frear-La Follette plans. Later, when the bill was on final passage, a last-hour compromise was effected upon an income tax schedule, labelled “Republican” but differing from the Democratic plan only in detail. It permitted the insurgents to boast that they had forced reversal of the principle of the Mellon plan. The boast was justified by Mr. Mills of New York and other Mellon advocates. And Mr. Treadway of Massachusetts was so outraged that he cried out in anger on the floor against dictation by the insurgent minority of Republicans to the regular majority.

In this process of yielding inch by inch to prevail upon the insurgents to vote for a bill labeled “Republican,” although its content as to income taxes was virtually Democratic, and it still carried the fifty percent increase in estate taxes, the gift tax and the provision for Congressional access to income tax returns, all gravely objectionable to the administration, the Republican managers in the Llouse paid no attention to the Mellon rates. In committee of the whole, the Mellon program was brought up only when Mr. Madden, Old Guard stalwart, took it upon himself to force a vote, and the vote demonstrated the wisdom of Mr. Longworth’s politics. Mr. Madden shouted to the Republicans that the Mellon rates were the Republican ticket. Approximately one third of the Republicans ignored his shout. The same thing happened when the same effort and the same battle-cry were put forth in the final balloting.

Now, the important fact to note is that Mr. Madden was right in his shout to the Republican side. The Mellon plan was the Republican ticket. It had been made the Republican ticket not alone by the administration’s insistent demand, but by the endorsement of those elements which constitute the foundation strength of the regular Republican organization. And when it is clearly understood that the Mellon plan was the Republican ticket, the real significance of one third of the members of the

Republican party in the House refusing to vote for it begins to emerge. The plan—the party ticket—was bolted not alone by the La Follette balance of power group; it was bolted by a large group of other insurgents.

The next fact to be noted is that this debacle of party effort is not out of line with the record of the Republican party. It is in line. It is sixteen years since the Republican party was a reliable agency for affirmative action, and sixteen years is a long period in which to test a party. From the hour of Taft’s election in 1908, the Republican party has been unstable in the discharge of affirmative responsibilities. Mr. Taft’s administration was marked by dissension, disunion and debility. From the time of Wilson's election in 1912 until 1918 the Republican party had no affirmative policies. Much of the time a great part of it was reluctantly following Wilson in legislation. From 1918 until the incoming of Harding, it was wholly negative. And even the overwhelming majority in Congress in the first half of the Harding administration did not prevent doubts, indecisions and reversals of policies.

So, the record flows naturally into the Mellon tax plan disaster—flows steadily whether the well-trained conservative statesman Taft was at the party helm, or the well-trained conservative politician Harding was at the helm, or the well-trained conservative politician-statesman Coolidge was there, or whether the helm was in charge of a group of political first mates as during the Wilson administration. Moreover, this is to be marked: the paralyzing ruptures of the past were caused by exactly the same facts as the paralysis in the Mellon fight, that is, the insistence of the men in control of party direction upon given policies and the bitter rebellion of men from the West. That caused the breakdown of the Taft administration; it caused the bolt of 1912; it caused the defections to Wilson between 1912 and 1918; it caused the amazing weakness of the Harding administration in Congress in 1921 and 1922.

Obviously, there underlies such divisions continued over a long period a deepseated antagonism on fundamentals. It cannot be accounted for by ordinary factional differences, or, as the regulars contended in 1912, by personal ambition. It is an antagonism growing out of opposing economic interests, and coloring social views. That was true between 1908 and 1912 and it is true now, no matter what particular aspects the conflict may assume. No better illustration of this can be had than a brief and unimportant exchange between Mr. Mills, of New York, and Mr. Green, of Iowa, in the debate over the gift tax while the tax bill was in the House.

Mr. Green wanted to enact a gift tax because he believed it would increase revenues under the surtaxes and the estates taxes by serving as a barrier to evasions. Mr. Mills, an opponent of high surtaxes and of increased estate taxes, fought the gift tax. The West wanted to tax the rich to relieve the poor. The East wanted to relieve the rich, and argued such relief to be best for the country. So much for the opposed economic views. As to the social consequence of these opposed views: Mr. Mills, in the manner of one putting a poser, inquired whether Mr. Green would tax the gift of a $10,000 necklace given by a man to his wife at Christmas. And Mr. Green almost jubilantly replied that it would be most desirable so to tax ostentation. Mr. Green is not a La Follette man; he had been counted a regular until the tax fight opened.

There is every reason to believe that the antagonism will become stronger, not weaker, in the future. The powerful conservatives of the East see no protection for their interests and their convictions save in the Republican party. They cannot turn to the Democratic party, since, whatever its deficiencies, it leans toward progressivism, not alone because of the direction given it in the Wilson administration, but because its popular strength is among the small farmers of the South and the wage-earners of the North. Hence, the Eastern conservatives must at any cost retain their grip on the Republican organization, unless they are willing to relinquish political control, which they are far from considering. And this grip is bound to be opposed by the West with increasing vigor and increasing strength, because the West is steadily formulating a semi-radical social theory in addition to its semi-radical economic interest. It is developing an educated semi-radicalism.

It is to be gravely doubted that such a struggle can go on indefinitely without tearing the Republican party wide open, and destroying it as the piece of political mechanism the country has used most of the time since the Civil War. A party cannot suffer such futility as it has shown in the tax fight without paying a severe penalty. The danger to the party organization goes farther than the effects of internecine strife. It goes to the very roots of popular confidence in it. Ours is a party government. Good or bad, conservative or radical, a party must have formulated and accepted ideas and purposes—as the Republican party had for many years—else it becomes insufficient as an instrument in the hands of the country. Clearly, the Republican party has none, and has no prospects of evolving any.

To make the danger to the Republican party on that score more pronounced, there is the fact that the Democratic party presented an exactly opposite picture in the tax fight. I do not discuss here the merits of the Democratic position on taxes. I merely point to the fact that, as a party, it was able to formulate a definite policy, based upon an economic and social theory that certainly is arguable, and then was able to sustain its policy by a united front. In other words, it was a political party in fact, not merely in name. More, the little group of radicals in the House was able to do precisely the same thing. After all the pulling and hauling in the name of Republicanism that the regulars were able to do, there remained the La Follette bloc, actually swinging the balance of power, and, in sum, presenting a picture of party action far beyond the powers of the Republicans. Both Democrats and La Follette radicals proved themselves political agencies with the power to act, without which no political agency is worth its salt, and the Republicans proved themselves an agency without power to act—except on terms dictated to them.

It is useless to attempt specific predictions. Chance plays a mighty part in politics, and chance may save the Republican party for some years. But it is almost impossible to believe that the process of decay which has been so apparent since Roosevelt yielded the presidency to Taft will not finally result in the disappearance of the Republican party as we have known it. The period may be one of years. The final sum of it all may still be called Republicanism. But the old party, registering one failure after another until it reaches a pitiable fiasco in a major tax policy with which it sought to control the very bottom political sentiment of the country, without doubt cannot survive indefinitely.

And assuredly its peril is increased in this year by the availability of La Follette as the leader of a bolt of the rebellious element, long held in subjection. Chance may play against it as well as for it. Chance may have given the rebellious in this year a logical leader for their logical departure from the old standard. And the tax fight may stimulate La Follette no less than the opportunism thrown into the general situation by the oil scandal. It is incredible that such a collapse of the Republican program could have occurred in the tax fight in the House unless there were a profound popular protest in the West against the Mellon plan so strenuously urged by the men in control of the party machinery, and an equally profound distrust of the men who control the organization of the Republican party. 

This article appeared in the March 19, 1924 issue of the magazine. 

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