The Political Field

“A nation cannot always feed on the strong meat of great controversies. But there are real issues before us, of practical importance, and it is the duty of party leaders to cease skirmishing around their edges, and to meet them fairly.”

The state elections of last fall disclosed results which surprised the politicians of both parties, and developed new conditions and probabilities for the approaching presidential contest of 1884. These results showed that the two great national political organizations are still of nearly equal force in the important States of the North that have heretofore been the ground of sharpest conflict in national campaigns, and that in spite of all the ferment of new issues of the past three years no new organization has arisen of sufficient strength to be called a party, or even a respectable faction. The voting population is still divided into two great camps, — Republican and Democratic. What lies outside of those camps, in the way of temperance associations and labor-reform leagues, produces some effect in state canvasses when allied with one or the other: of the great parties, but standing alone cannot much affect results, and is not likely to play any appreciable part in the coming presidential campaign. The vital, potent political forces still gather under the old ensigns, although it would be hard for any one to say just what those ensigns now signify.

Further, the late elections showed that the great wave of Democratic success of 1882 brought about no permanent change in the convictions of the voters. The Republican defeats of that year were so overwhelming that short-sighted prophets predicted the speedy death of the party. There seemed to be a hopeless disintegration of the Republican forces. Party discipline could not be enforced, and appeals to party feeling were ineffectual to bring the voters into line. New York, a Republican State in 1880, elected a Democratic governor by 192,000 majority. Pennsylvania, which had been steadily Republican for twenty years, except in 1874, gave the Democratic candidate for governor 48,000 majority over his Republican competitor. Massachusetts, which had only once refused the Republicans a majority since their party was formed in 1854, put in the state house a man peculiarly objectionable to them, because he had deserted them as soon as their victories began to cost some effort.

Nothing seemed plainer, after the elections of 1882, than that the Democrats had the prize of the presidency already in their grasp. They had won their victories, not by presenting any new issues, but simply by appealing to the dissatisfaction of the voters with the course of the Republican leaders. General Garfield used to say that every man in public life has a precipice ahead of him, — how near he cannot know, — towards which he is steadily marching. It may be far off or close at hand, but sooner or later he will fall over it. As with the politician, so with a party. It cannot always hold the favor of the majority and keep itself in power. The longer the career of success behind it, the greater the probability that its precipice of defeat is close ahead. The elections of 1882 appeared to be the first descents of the precipice, the sheer fall of which was to come in 1884.

Nor did the October elections of 1883 indicate any change in the current of Republican disaster. Iowa, always Republican, was carried with difficulty, growing out of the prominence of the prohibition question; but Ohio, which had regularly been carried by that party the year before a presidential election, went Democratic, in spite of the political vagaries and want of personal popularity of the Democratic candidate for governor. It is true that in Ohio the liquor question complicated the contest to the prejudice of the Republicans. In reason it should not have done so, because the Republican legislature gave the people a fair chance to choose between two constitutional amendments, one for prohibition and the other for license; and the Scott law, which imposed heavy taxes on drinking-saloons, proved popular, and ought logically to have drawn to the Republicans the ultra-temperance vote, if that vote were ever logical or practical. Probably the Republicans would have carried Ohio if the question of how to deal with whiskey-selling had been shut out, of the canvass; but the Democrats refused to admit this, and they gained in other States all the encouragement and momentum of a great victory in the State that had long been the key of the Republican position.

Thus everything appeared to be in their favor in the November elections. Yet without any marked activity or enthusiasm on the part of their opponents, and in fact with hardly a respectable show of campaign organization to contend with except in Massachusetts, they were beaten in the three pivotal States of New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, which they had carried so easily the year before. In Pennsylvania, the 40,600 majority for Pattison in 1882 was changed to a majority of 16,000 for the head of the Republican ticket. In New York, Governor Cleveland’s prodigious majority of 192,000 was all swept away, and the Republican candidate for secretary of state, General Carr, was elected by about 17,000 majority. The Democrats pulled through the, rest of their state ticket, it is true, and were able to attribute the defeat of their leading candidate to his views on the temperance question; but the result, compared with that of the previous year, was none the less for them a mortifying disaster. In Massachusetts, the previous year, General Butler, after long effort and by the exercise of political adroitness and audacity that reached the height of genius, had managed to weld together into a majority party all the odds and ends of new movements and old factions—labor reformers, communists, greenbackers, woman suffragists and idealists, and agitators of various creeds—in connection with the old Democratic party of the State. His year in the gubernatorial chair can hardly be said to have disappointed any of his miscellaneous supporters. Like Sydney Smith’s flea, he displayed a diabolical activity. He was always reforming something or other, and by constantly keeping himself in the public eye he was able to assume at all times a dramatic attitude of leadership, well calculated to work upon the imagination of his followers. Yet when the ballots were counted, his majority of 14,000 was found to have disappeared, and Mr. Robinson, his antagonist, came off victorious by 10,000 votes.

Only in one contested State did the Democrats win a victory, and there their success was of great importance and advantage in the presidential struggle, — not to them, but to the Republicans. That State was Virginia. Paradoxical though the statement may seem at first thought, the Democratic triumph in that quarter strengthens the whole Republican line for the approaching national campaign. Senator Mahone, who led the opposition to the regular Democracy in Virginia, is to that State what General Butler is to Massachusetts. He represents the elements of ignorance, discontent, irresponsibility to social restraints, and disorganization of established conditions. To the negro voters he had joined the lower classes of the white voters into a motley organization, called the Readjuster party. His assertion that the state debt could not and should not be paid in full attracted to him the thriftless small farmers; the careless mountaineers, who live on one small corn-patch, a few hogs, and a rifle; and the idle politicians of the county towns. The Republican leaders turned over the colored vote to him because he promised them success and offices. He had a small contingent of admirers in Washington, — men who hang on the skirts of the administration, and whose knowledge of Southern politics is gathered in the hotel lobbies of that city. These men appeared at one time to have persuaded the President that Mahone must be supported as an entering wedge to split the solid South, and that if he were successful this year it would be feasible next year for the Republicans to carry three or four Southern States. The “Mahone alliance,” as the political scheme concocted in Washington was called, was utterly distasteful to the Republican masses of the North, — a foundation stone in whose political faith was the honest payment of public debts in exact accordance with contracts. The ablest of the Republican leaders repudiated it openly; all regarded it as indefensible before Northern constituencies. Now that the Virginia alliance is broken up by the failure of Mahone to carry the election, the Republican party is well rid of a load which threatened to break it down in the coming campaign. It will henceforth have no bargains and trades with state-debt readjusters or repudiators to explain.

When we come to look for the causes which have brought about a reaction in favor of the Republicans, the good conduct of the national administration must be given the first place. After the ridiculous defeat of President Arthur’s candidate for governor of New York in 1882, the administration let state politics sedulously alone, excepting some little countenance given to Mahone. It may almost be said to have let national politics alone, too. President Arthur has made a King Log kind of administration, because he had the sagacity to see, after the failure of his attempts at activity, that the policy of drifting was the only one likely to heal Republican dissensions and rehabilitate the party. Any effort on his part to become a positive force in politics would have revived old antagonisms and produced new ones. The people never fully trust a Vice- President who succeeds to the executive chair. They say, “We did not put that man there;” and if he seeks to urge any particular line of action upon his party or upon Congress, they are apt to say, “The good man whom we elected, and whom death removed from office, would not have behaved in that way.” In short, they are offended if he exercises the full measure of the powers and privileges of his position, and are best satisfied if he merely administers the office in a business-like way, leaving questions of policy for his party to determine, without his interference. In this spirit Mr. Arthur has of late discharged his duties; doing a good deal of traveling and fishing, attending to the routine business of the Executive with intelligence and fairness, and letting politics take care of themselves. The effect upon the Republican party has been salutary. The old factions find no fresh cause of quarrel with him or with each other, and his quiet, decorous, undemonstrative administration has afforded the Democrats no point of attack. Mr. Arthur is entitled to the credit of being the first Vice-President succeeding to the presidency in our history who has strengthened his party. All the others, Tyler, Fillmore, and Johnson, were disorganizers.

The Republicans also gathered some strength from local causes. In Pennsylvania, the “reform” administration of Governor Pattison, which took office with much éclat, failed to meet expectations, and irritated the voters by bringing about a tedious, expensive, and unnecessary extra session of the legislature; in New York, the phenomenal majority governor, Cleveland, proved a commonplace though fairly competent executive, and demonstrated no real fitness for party leadership; in Massachusetts, Governor Butler’s investigating zeal, his efforts to “stir things up,” and his scheme of basing political power on the discontent and communistic tendencies of the laboring classes in factory towns gave the Republicans an opportunity to rally the stable, property-owning classes against him. It is a noticeable fact, however, that national issues played no appreciable part in these state canvasses, and that in New York, where the result was most significant, there was no particular state issue. Indeed, there can hardly be said to have been any campaign in that State, in the usual significance of the word. The two parties nominated their tickets and appointed their committees, but there were few public meetings held, and the columns of the newspapers gave little evidence that an election was approaching. The great Republican gain in New York must be attributed chiefly to the renewed vitality of the party as a national organization.

Besides the revival of the Republican party in the Northern States, the recent elections show that that party is gaining no new footholds in the South, — a fact to be regretted by all patriotic men. Every State which joined the rebellion is going to cast its electoral vote, next fall, for the Democratic candidate for President, whoever he may be. In no one of them will there be a contest such as will be carried on in every Northern State. All will be strongly, hopelessly Democratic, as a matter of sentiment and sympathy coming down from the war period and the epoch of reconstruction; not because the Democratic party now proposes to do anything the Southern people want done, or because the Republican party advocates any measures they favor, but purely from feeling and tradition. It is high time for the influential classes of the South to develop healthful political antagonisms among them selves, but they are evidently not going to do so in season to affect the coming presidential contest. The solid South will still exist, to throw its great electoral vote in a lump into the scales. The Democratic party will again be able to count upon that vote as assured in advance and without effort, and thus to concentrate the campaign activities upon the task of adding to it forty-five electoral votes from the entire North. That this condition of things is lamentable, no thoughtful man who looks beyond mere party success will fail to perceive; but it exists, and there is no present help for it. The Northern States are the only battlefields of the next contest; the States south of the Potomac and the Ohio are not debatable ground.

At the same time, there is good reason to believe that this continued solidity of the South will not be a dominant topic of discussion in the canvass, and will not enter as an important factor in the result in the presidential election in the Northern States; I mean that the voters will not be urged to make the Northern States solidly Republican because the Southern States persist in being solidly Democratic. We have had enough of that sectional cry in the past. If the Republican party is to be continued in power, it should be because it has practical and immediate purposes for the good of the country, promising wise legislation and prudent administration and honest dealing with new issues, and not because the South obstinately clings to an obsolete sentiment of sectionalism. Intelligent people in the North know that the Southern people are no longer seeking to change anything in the constitution or the statutes established as the result of the war; that they cherish no plans for the division of the country, or the denial of rights to the blacks; that they differ among themselves on living national issues; and, in a word, that they are now patriotic, prosperous citizens of the republic, with abundance of sectional feeling and prejudice still, but with absolutely no sectional aims. The Republican party will do well to let them alone to wear out their stupid provincial sentiment of fidelity to a single party, and make its fight with little regard to the fact that they have prejudged the general question between the parties, and determined to throw their States solidly on one side.

We therefore see that, without taking account of the changes in public sentiment which may be effected by the doings of Congress at its present session, the prospects for the near presidential contest are that the two old parties will face each other in the Northern States with about the same show of relative strength, distributed in about the same way, as in 1880. A close and exciting campaign will probably ensue. Yet it is difficult to foresee what the parties are going to fight about. No important public question, now alive and open, divides them. Towards no such question does one party take a decided and unanimous affirmative position, and the other an equally decided and unanimous negative. Let us name some public questions, and apply the test: civil service reform, the internal revenue system, the tariff, national banking, silver currency, postal telegraphy, the disposition of the surplus in the treasury, internal improvements, the restoration of our ocean commerce, the construction of a navy, a positive foreign policy, — is there any one of these topics of current national interest concerning which the two parties take issue? It may be said that a majority of the Republican party favor the civil service system, recently introduced, and that a majority of the Democrats do not; that a majority of the Democratic party oppose the protective tariff system, and a majority of the Republicans sustain it; and so on through most of the list: but in each question there is a minority of one party siding with a majority of the other. In this muddled condition of opinion, neither party seems willing to select a few questions, formulate them plainly, assume a positive attitude towards them, and ask the verdict of the voters upon them. Unless the situation is changed this winter, we are likely to have nothing better than a bundle of patriotic platitudes and political truisms presented in the party platforms, which nobody will care a straw about.

In such an event the struggle will largely turn upon the popularity of the candidates. In old times, when the country newspapers placed mottoes under their headings, one much in use was, “Measures, not men.” We are likely to have a campaign of men, not measures. If each of the great parties fails to present any measures as distinctively its own, then the independent and unattached voters, who hold the balance of power, will take their choice between the presidential candidates, on the ground of their relative personal fitness for the place. Such a choice would be entirely legitimate. If there are no national questions at issue, then sensible men may well make up their minds which of the two candidates for the chief magistracy shows the better record and the better promise for statesman-like performance in the White House. A contest over the respective merits of two strong candidates would not be altogether regrettable, provided it did not degenerate into slander and abuse, as presidential campaigns have, of late, shown a tendency to do. A little hero-worship, now and then, is not a bad thing for a nation. If the Republicans should nominate a man like Senator Edmunds, and the Democrats a man like Senator Bayard, the parties might as well dispense with platforms, and conduct the canvass on the records and character of the two men, as to put forth a series of sonorous, empty resolutions. It would be altogether better, however, if one of the parties, at least, would take up a few of the genuine issues that lie on the surface of public thought, and announce definite purposes concerning them. During the present generation we have seen the mass of American voters educated on many great questions by a thorough public discussion in political canvasses. Such questions as manhood suffrage, specie payments, and the honest payment of the public debt have been debated and determined during the past eighteen years. It may be urged that there are no such issues now pending. Very true; a nation cannot always feed on the strong meat of great controversies. But there are real issues before us, of practical importance, and it is the duty of party leaders to cease skirmishing around their edges, and to meet them fairly.

The Republican party, as the party of new ideas and positive doctrine in the past, might well be expected to lead the way in taking position. In line with its history and traditions as a strong government party, it might take up affirmatively the following questions: —

First, the extension and defense of the civil service system. This system is already partially established in the departments at Washington and in the large post-offices and custom-houses, where original appointments are now made only by selection from candidates recommended by the commission as having passed a creditable examination. Civil service reform, in its origin and in all its progress, until very lately was a Republican movement; and although a few prominent Democrats, notably Senator Pendleton, have of late given it valuable assistance, the mass of the Democracy is as hostile to it to-day as the mass of the Republicans were when Mr. Jenckes, of Rhode Island, began to preach the new faith in Congress twenty years ago. Democratic success in the approaching presidential election will imperil the fair beginnings of the reform; at least, the Republicans would be justified in saying so. Their platform should call for the broadening and strengthening of the new system. The Democrats could honestly oppose this demand with the Jacksonian theory, so firmly held by the great majority of them, that “to the victors belong the spoils.”

Second, maintenance of the protective tariff policy, coupled with reform of the inequalities, abuses, and outgrown features of the present law. The Republican party is historically a protectionist party, and the Democratic party is a low tariff, or tariff for revenue only, party. If one would cease to be afraid of Iowa and the other of Pennsylvania, and each would honestly enunciate the belief of the mass of its members, we should have an educating discussion which could hardly fail to result in the public good.

Third, postal telegraphy. The business public is fast coming to the conclusion that the telegraph is the modern mail, and that every argument in favor of the post-office being a government institution applies to it. If it is of unquestioned advantage to the public that correspondence which goes in a leather bag should be carried by the government, why should correspondence which goes on a wire be left to the mercy of greedy, speculative corporations? The Republican party could consistently take the lead in this question, and the Democratic party, as the opponent of an efficient centralized government, could with equal consistency assume the negative of the proposition.

Fourth, a vigorous foreign policy for the extension of our commerce and our national influence, backed by a strong navy. The state-department policy of the short Garfield administration, though bungled in South America by incompetent agents, was undoubtedly approved in principle by the majority of the Republican party, who are tired of the timid and selfish attitude of national isolation which our government customarily assumes in the affairs of the world. Men of broad and progressive opinions believe that a republic of fifty millions of people should make its ideas and influence felt all round the globe, for the good of other nations as well as for the extension of its own commercial relations. On this question, the Democrats, who are conservative as to public expenditures, opposed to giving the national government any real military or naval power, and very much disposed to narrow their vision down to petty matters lying close at home, would naturally take the negative side.

Why not add, or rather put in the first place, the new civil rights issue which Colonel Ingersoll and Frederick Douglass have recently tried to raise in Washington, in opposition to the Supreme Court decision which declared Charles Sumner’s civil rights law to be unconstitutional? This question may well be asked by old Republicans. The answer is that the public mind is no longer interested in the affairs of the negro race. A generation of controversy and four years of terrible war gave the negro in America freedom and the ballot. Now the common sentiment is that enough has been done for him, and that he should make his own way upward in the social scale. There is no demand for a constitutional amendment which will put the machinery of federal courts at work to secure him good seats at the theatres, good beds in hotels and sleeping-cars, and the right to be shaved in the fashionable barber-shops. People are content, now that the tension of sympathy with the enfranchised race has relaxed, to leave such matters to state legislation.

Other questions might be added, but here are enough for an active intellectual canvass. Such a canvass would have an excellent effect on the public mind. Instead of getting angry anew over bygone quarrels and threshing the old straw of dead controversies, the voters would be led to the frank discussion of living issues which affect the whole body of the American people.