As we approach a pivotal presidential election, it's worth looking back a century to another one. The 1912 contest, which set the stage for the United States' emergence as a world power, bore similarities to the political situation today.
At the time, Republicans had long dominated the White House, having held the presidency for all but eight years since the election of Lincoln in 1860. That changed in 1912.
A revolt broke out in the Republican Party, partly ideological and partly personal. The Progressive movement had made deep inroads among Republicans, causing problems for President William Howard Taft, a genial, 320-pound conservative. Former President Theodore Roosevelt returned from big-game hunting to try to bag the presidency again as the voice of the Progressives.
Roosevelt won most of the primaries, but Taft controlled the party apparatus and secured the nomination. Roosevelt responded by founding the new Progressive Party, better known as the Bull Moose Party.
The GOP split made the Democratic nomination suddenly worthwhile. After a typically tumultuous convention, the Democrats nominated Woodrow Wilson, the governor of New Jersey and a former college professor and president.
Roosevelt and Wilson waged vigorous campaigns to become the voice of the Progressive movement. Both argued for regulation of big business and sympathy for labor, laying down the broad parameters of the modern welfare state. Taft, believing he had no chance, hardly campaigned.
Because of the Republican divide, the election wasn't close. Roosevelt won only six states, Taft just two.
Wilson's first two years were successful, especially domestically. He enacted a series of progressive laws, creating the Federal Reserve and the first permanent income tax. But his foreign policy revealed qualities that would eventually doom his presidency, including ignorance of foreign affairs and a rigid moralism.
To address unrest in Mexico, Wilson sent an expedition led by Gen. John Pershing after the bandit-revolutionary Pancho Villa. Villa led the Americans deep into Mexico before they gave up and returned empty-handed. Later, Wilson intervened in a raging civil war south of the border, telling a friend he intended to teach the Mexicans "to elect good men."
World War I broke out in the midst of Wilson's Mexican imbroglio, and it would overshadow the rest of his presidency. He was reelected in 1916 on the slogan "He kept us out of war." Four months into his second term, America was at war with Germany.
With foreign policy dominating his presidency, Wilson was out of his depth, as he seems to have understood. He told a friend after his election that "it would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs."
The tragedy of the 1912 election is that Roosevelt, who was deeply knowledgeable about foreign affairs, would have been better equipped to deal with the issues the nation faced. He had handled diplomacy during his presidency with a certain flair. He won the Noble Peace Prize for helping to end the Russo-Japanese War, presided over the construction of the Panama Canal, and was the first American president to dabble in European balance-of-power politics.
Wilson's wartime policies, on the other hand, were a disaster. Inflation ran rampant, and restrictions on civil liberties dwarfed modern examples such as Guantánamo Bay. At the peace conference after the war, Wilson was consistently outmaneuvered, and he saw his League of Nations overwhelmingly rejected by the American public. It's hard to imagine Roosevelt handling these matters as poorly.
Similarly, Barack Obama was elected amid economic crisis, but he has had to spend much of his first term confronting foreign-policy issues with which he was clearly uncomfortable, including winding down the Iraq war and expanding the American presence in Afghanistan. John McCain was better prepared to confront these issues, but he suffered from divisions within the GOP that persist today.
The United States has often been fortunate enough to produce the right man to meet a crisis — Lincoln at the brink of the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt in the midst of the Great Depression. Let's hope that fortune prevails again.
John Rossi is a professor emeritus of history at La Salle University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.