Each week, as the thundering host of Democratic seekers of their party’s 2020 presidential nomination scramble for attention and try to outflank their rivals to the left, that party rolls out a new policy proposal that lurches further away from where the solid center of American politics has always resided. The most transformative presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, to adapt a sports metaphor, moved center-field, 10 yards to the left under Roosevelt, and 10 yards to the right under Reagan, but always between the 30-yard lines.
In the five elections between 1876 and 1892, the popular vote was always very close, and the Democrats actually led four times, losing in 1880 by only 2,000 votes out of 9 million cast (James A. Garfield defeated Winfield S. Hancock). Even so, their candidate was only victorious twice; both times with Grover Cleveland. The Republicans ran as the party of Lincoln and Grant and victory in the Civil War, and kept expanding veterans’ pensions more widely among their families. The Democrats prevented the emancipated slaves from voting in the South, states they won en bloc, while they rounded up immigrant and working-class votes with their political machines in the great cities of the North and Midwest. Thus the popular vote was deceiving, as the Democrats won almost all the votes in the South and the Republicans won safely enough in the North.
But policy differences revolved mainly around the tariff—the Democrats wanted lower tariffs to get lower prices for the working and middle classes and the Republicans wanted higher tariffs to promote domestic manufacturing growth and profits.
Democrats then departed the center of the political field starting in 1896, when they nominated for the first of three times William Jennings Bryan, a Nebraskan who promoted a radical increase in the money supply by issuing silver as well as gold-backed currency: bimetallism. The Republicans won the next four elections easily, and only lost in 1912 when Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft split the vote, enabling Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win. His margin was over 3 percent (570,000 votes), because of the unrepresentative margin in the South, but it was still a hair’s-breadth election as he only won California (10 percent of the country’s population) by under 4,000 votes out of 1 million cast in the state. Wilson won on his slogan “He kept us out of war” but delivered his speech to Congress requesting a declaration of war less than a month after he was inaugurated the second time.
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