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WHIGS 2000 | 1999-09-25

Pat Buchanan is considering running for the Reform Party nomination, and polls give him about 16% in a three-way race. In third party terms, that's huge, and third parties have been bellwethers in American politics. In Minnesota, Jesse Ventura started his gubernatorial campaign with a lower poll percentage than that and took out two big-name major party candidates.

Can the Reform Party become a major party? The last time a new major party was founded was in 1854, and that was the Republican Party. The very next year, in 1855, the Republicans dominated the House, electing William Tecumseh Sherman's brother Speaker of the House. The Republican Party immediately replaced the Whigs, which had been the official opposition to the Democrats until then.

The Whig Party was formed in the late 1820s to oppose Andrew Jackson's new Democratic Party, which took power in 1829. The Whigs were America's second national party from about 1828 to 1854. They won only two presidential elections during that entire time. Whigs really didn't stand for anything much. They were simply a light opposition party for the ruling Democrats.

If Whigs cared about anything , it was the interests of rich people. Whigs wanted high tariffs, a national bank, and the other things that would help the rich get richer. Above all, Whigs did not want to rock the boat.

One thing that was clear about the Whigs was that, when a serious national issue arose to split the country along lines of principle, the Whigs would not be able to deal with it. As soon as the split between the North and South took precedence, the Whigs simply melted away. In other words, the Whigs were exactly like professional Republicans today.

Exactly like today's respectable conservatives, the Whigs made complete fools of themselves when they tried to be Shrewd. Like professional conservatives today, the Whiggish attempts to be Shrewd always ended up producing a bad joke.

By 1840, the Whigs had compiled a record today's Republicans would be proud of: they had run three times and lost three times. Then, in 1840, they decided they would be Shrewd. Though the actual Democratic candidate was President Martin Van Buren, they were running against the party of Andrew Jackson. So the Whigs nominated a former general, William Henry Harrison, to balance off Andrew Jackson's image. Then came the Shrewd Bit. They decided to get opposition votes by nominating an anti-Jackson Democrat for the unimportant office of VICE president.

So in 1840 the Whig ticket consisted of Harrison for president and Tyler for vice president. They were not sure what Tyler stood for, but since he was to be only the Vice President, that made no difference. He was just a Shrewd addition.

For the first time, the Whigs actually won. Then the results of their Shrewd Move began to kick in. William Henry Harrison was inaugurated in March of 1841. One month later, he was dead. After twelve years of Democratic rule, the Whigs had had a Whig President for exactly thirty days. In April, 1841, another Democrat, John Tyler, moved into the White House.

Tyler was no Jackson Democrat, but he was just as certainly no Whig. Actually, he was a John C. Calhoun Democrat. Very soon, the entire Whig Cabinet was gone and Southern Democrats took over. All this was courtesy of the Whigs' Shrewd Move.

The Whigs won one more election, in 1852. Once again they elected a general. Once again the Whig luck kicked in and he died in office. He was succeeded by the world renowned Millard Filmore. The Whigs held the White House until March of 1853. By 1856, they had ceased to exist.

So from 1828 to 1852, in a quarter of a century as the official opposition party, the Whigs held the White House for a total of one month!

The Whigs ended up being a bad joke. To me, the similarities between them and the modern Republican Party are absolutely eerie.

In historical terms, the Whigs were just pointless time-fillers. They were tolerated as a fake opposition until the inevitable time came when national politics got too serious for them. They merely got in the way of serious discussion until the split between North and South became too serious to be settled in the realm of politics.

Republican moderates, professional conservatives, and "Christian" conservatives own a Republican Party that is exactly like the 1840s Whigs.

Any serious issue would break the modern Republican Party.

America needs a post-Cold War political party. Democrats want American armed forces all over the world enforcing their agenda. Republicans are happy with that. All they want is a bigger military. What it is used for is of no importance. They just want more troops and more dollars for the Defense Department. They are still a Cold War party.

Democratic trade policy is aimed at pushing a liberal agenda. Republican trade policy ignores any special concern for domestic interests. The fact is that the Republican Party is owned by the Pentagon and by big money, and everybody knows it.

Democrats want massive third world immigration for long-term votes and power. Republicans want open borders for short-term cheap labor and profits.

There is plenty of room for a Reform Party which would be for cutting immigration and for keeping defense expenditures and military adventurism down.

More generally, it is time for an American party with the slogan America First. I think they would probably screw up economic policy, but I am talking politics here, not economics.

I think that Pat Buchanan could be useful to this movement. He will lose, but the Republicans had to lose with John Fremont in 1856 before they won in 1860. The first time Jackson ran for president in 1824, his budding Democratic Party lost. I think Pat would lose, but he could establish the Whig Party as a serious contender.

I think Pat would lose because he does not have what I would call a "clean ticket." The Republican ticket in 1860 was severely limited. It only contained items such as building the transatlantic railroad by the northern route and, above all, opposing the extension of slavery to any new territory. There were a lot of issues that New Englanders would have liked to include, but they were avoided. The Republican platform in 1860 even went out of its way to insist that Lincoln would enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

New England did not take control of America by insisting on everything at once. New England took over America through the Republican Party only AFTER it used the "clean ticket" to win a national election. The "clean ticket" party first had to break the Southern-Western coalition that controlled American politics.

To have a chance of WINNING, Pat would need a clean ticket. But Pat has a fatal misconception. In 1976, I wrote "A Plague On Both Your Houses," which described anti-liberal populism. As Pat says, anti-liberal populism will be the force that forms the next major political party in America. But Pat has fatally confused anti-liberal populism with the Religious Right. They are NOT the same thing.

Today's fake Republican opposition is not going to fight for any social issue. In order to win on any social issues in the long run, Pat would have to show the patience New England did in 1860. If his issues are to get anywhere, he will first have to clean out the fake Republican opposition. That requires more of a "clean ticket" strategy than Pat is likely to settle for.

So Pat cannot win, but he would certainly help the Reform Party to advance.

If the Reform Party is ever to actually win a national election, it must EVENTUALLY find a nationally credible candidate who will go the "clean ticket" route and concentrate on immigration restrictions and America First. To attract such a candidate, it will first have to make an impressive run against the other two parties in a national election WITHOUT Ross Perot at the top of the ticket.

As the Republicans did in 1856, the post-Perot Reform Party must lose an election while proving that they are a credible national party. Pat Buchanan could be the John Fremont of the Reform Party.