Friday, February 3, 2012

Robert Mason's "The Republican Party and American Politics from Hoover to Reagan"

Robert Mason is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Republican Party and American Politics from Hoover to Reagan, and reported the following:
The Republican Party and American Politics from Hoover to Reagan investigates a period when defeat usually characterized the GOP’s electoral record, when a majority of Americans identified with the Democratic party. The book analyzes the debate among Republicans about these problems, together with their efforts to restore their party to majority status. It explains why these efforts usually ended in failure.

Page 99 is about an atypical phase of this quest. It features part of the book’s discussion of Wendell Willkie, the party’s 1940 presidential nominee and a charismatic iconoclast, and his effort to reshape the GOP approach to foreign policy. An outsider to party politics when he won the nomination, he then pursued a project to transform the party’s policy agenda and to boost its electoral appeal. Page 99 sees Willkie at his most controversial, during 1941’s “Great Debate” about World War II. Willkie argued against most fellow Republican politicians in echoing Franklin Roosevelt’s sympathetic policies toward the Allies. Willkie’s project to transform the GOP earned him widespread enmity among Republicans, ensuring both the project’s failure and the destruction of his party career.

The Willkie episode is an atypical part of the book because of the policy ideas that informed this project of party transformation. At that moment of extreme geopolitical instability, Willkie cared most of all about foreign policy. He wanted to challenge the neutrality that informed how many Republicans viewed the aggressive, expansionist threat of dictatorships in Europe and East Asia. Most of the book, however, deals with the Republican response to the Democratic party’s domestic agenda. During this era, government activism in response to the nation’s socioeconomic problems was consistently more popular than laissez-faire, fiscally conservative principles. In practice if not in theory, Americans preferred big government to small government, accounting for the Democrats’ majority status. How to respond most effectively to this New Deal liberalism is the Republican challenge that the book investigates.

This electoral challenge was never far from the center of the Republican debate during this period. The problem of minority status also informed the Willkie project; it is Willkie’s potential as a party outsider able to reach out to Americans beyond conventional Republican ranks that had helped to win him the party nomination. In this sense, the discussion of Willkie on page 99 is closely related to the analytical focus of the book as a whole. The Willkie project failed, but so did many other Republican initiatives to boost the party’s fortunes during this long period of the twentieth century.
Learn more about The Republican Party and American Politics from Hoover to Reagan at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue