Editors Note: This article was run in August but due to popular demand and the timeliness of the issues related to this piece we are rerunning it today.
The potential Florida Democrats nomination of Charlie Crist is not without precedent or parallel in the annals of American political history. Once upon a time a political party was so desperate to regain an office it long ago held and was in such a hyper-minority mode that it nominated someone associated with the other party who would after the election show a remarkable amount of disloyalty to his new party.
In 1940 The Republicans nominated for President, Wendell Willkie, a quixotic character who had just eight years earlier been a prominent delegate to the Democratic National Convention where his 1940 opponent, Franklin Roosevelt had been nominated.
Willkie broke with FDR over the New Deal especially the TVA and by 1940 was a Republican, seeking the party’s Presidential nomination. The newly converted GOP member shamelessly courted the party’s isolationist wing, against the backdrop of World War II and the growing efforts of FDR and the Democrats to support Britain and France despite the US’ “neutrality” pledge. But Willkie himself was an internationalist and as he got closer to the nomination his true colors came out and his major differences with Roosevelt appeared more personal than anything substantive. Some Republicans weren’t thrilled with the idea of nominating Willkie. Senator James Watson of Indiana told Willkie directly “Well Wendell you know back home in Indiana it’s all right if the town whore joins the church but they don’t ask her to lead the choir on the first night.”
Ultimately the Republicans were so desperate to beat Roosevelt that a majority of convention delegates decided a former Democrat in the new era of “Me Too Republicanism” (a time when large elements of the GOP following the liberal political winds in the nation outside the south shifted hard left leaving them virtually indistinguishable from non southern Democrats. The southern wing of the Democratic Party was at the time actually more conservative than most Republicans in any region of the country) was a better bet to beat FDR than a bonafide conservative Republican. Thus began a 24 year run where Liberal Republicans controlled the nominating process and from 1940 until 1960 the GOP nominated for President candidates who were only slightly to the right of their Democratic opposition. All this changed in 1964 when conservative Barry Goldwater overthrew the established order pushing first Henry Cabot Lodge (the 1960 GOP Vice Presidential nominee who was serving in JFK’s administration) and then William Scranton. Since that election the GOP has been clearly defined as a conservative party as far as Presidential elections are concerned. (Note the Richard Nixon who ran in 1960 was a mushy moderate only slightly to the right of JFK as opposed to the law and order conservative who ran in 1968 after this clear shift in the party’s tone.)
Willkie was defeated though he did fare fare better against FDR than conservatives Herbert Hoover or Alf Landon had in the previous two elections. However, within months of his defeat at Roosevelt’s hands he became a close ally of the President. By October of the next year, just eleven months after the election he had teamed with Eleanor Roosevelt to form “Freedom House,” which advocated liberal principles globally. By late 1941 he had been named by FDR as a special envoy to Britain and as the United States become drawn into World War II he became Roosevelt’s special personal representative to both China and the Soviet Union. He became critical of the Republicans reluctance to embrace Civil Rights (the GOP traditionally the party of African-Americans last attempted to pass a Civil Rights bill in the 1890s) and attacked the GOP for its perceived conservative drift.
Willkie again ran for President in 1944 but as a disloyal Republican didn’t get very far in the primaries. He died before the US won World War II. While Willkie was a profile in courage for embracing internationalism from a progressive point of view, ultimately he was more loyal to his life-long party prior to the 1940 election than to the party that actually had nominated him after he changed his partisan affiliation.
While Charlie Crist is playing progressive today, his record as we have repeatedly pointed out is one of a partisan who did what he had to do to get ahead. Perhaps he now thinks the Democratic Party and its ideology is the way to go but for a man who so depends on likability and public adulation, can Florida’s Democrats actually trust him to stand for the principles the party holds dear?
Florida Democrats in 2014 seem equally desperate to the way the Republicans appeared in 1940. Being out of power as the Democrats have been in this state for 16 years means desperation and lack of rational thought has crept into the minds of some. Others simply want to “win” to increase personal influence rather than put forward a positive set of ideas for leading Florida forward.
Since the Democrats have been so unwilling to adopt hard and fast policy positions in this state Crist would have no standard to be held against and potentially could do a Willkie on the party especially considering the rest of Tallahassee if he were elected Governor is almost certain to be controlled by Republicans.
Learning the lessons of history is critical for political activists and parties alike. That is why the story of Wendell Willkie is so important as we head into 2014.