Will: Politics in longer perspective

George Will
Washington Post

Soon, voters will have the opportunity to insert themselves into the 2016 presidential conversation that thus far has been the preoccupation of journalists and other abnormal people. The voting will begin in Iowa, thanks to Marie Jahn.

When, after 38 years as recorder for Plymouth County in northwest Iowa, Jahn decided to retire in February 1975, local Democrats decided to throw her a party. When it came to attracting a speaker, the best they could entice from their party’s national ranks was a former one-term governor of Georgia.

According to Steven Hayward in “The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order”: When pollster George Gallup drew up a list of 38 potential Democratic presidential candidates in 1975, Jimmy Carter’s name was not on the list.

Eleven months after the celebration for Jahn, Carter finished second in the hitherto obscure Iowa caucuses, behind “undecided.” This semi-triumph became his springboard to Olympus. The caucuses would never again be obscure.

Surprises might be more difficult to spring now. But American politics often has had quirky aspects, as historian Morton Keller demonstrates in his “America’s Three Regimes: A New Political History.” The Republican Party, Keller says, became known as the Grand Old Party in the 1880s, when it was about 25 years young.

In 1840, when William Henry Harrison, scion of wealthy Virginia planters, ran for president as the hardscrabble “log cabin and hard cider candidate,” the resulting paraphernalia included glass log cabins containing whiskey from Pittsburgh’s E.C. Booz distillery, which enriched American slang.

Given the pandemic distaste for today’s politics, it is consoling to remember that things change. In the late 19th century, Robert Ingersoll, aka “The Great Agnostic,” was the nation’s most outspoken atheist and a leading Republican, a combination unlikely today.

In the third decade of the 20th century, even a politician with national aspirations could be proudly parochial: The Democrats’ 1928 presidential nominee, New York Gov. Al Smith, reportedly said he would rather be a lamppost on Park Row than the governor of California, and when asked his thoughts about the problems of states west of the Mississippi, he supposedly replied, “What are the states west of the Mississippi?” In 1952, the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, dismayed by the mainstream media’s conservatism, fretted about “a one-party press in a two-party country.”

Today, there is a sense in which there are few two-party states. In the presidential election 40 years ago, Carter against President Gerald Ford, 20 states were won by five points or less, including the six most populous states: California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois, Ohio. (Note the absence of Florida, now the third-most populous state.) In 2012, just four states were decided by five points or less (North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Virginia).

But, again, things change. “One session of the Connecticut Legislature in the 1790s,” Keller writes, “devoted itself primarily to imposing a tax on dogs. The next session was given over to discussing whether or not to remove that levy.” This was, of course, long ago, before government became ambitious, caring and reviled.

George Will writes for the Washington Post.