The Contest for the Democrats’ Stroke Seat

A TIGHT RACE AHEAD – STROKE PARKER – Now steady boys, get together!

23 October 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch gets into a Party mood.

One of my favourite themes is Jean-Baptiste Karr’s epigram, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, usually translated as ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. The cartoon above, drawn by Joseph Keppler and published in Puck magazine in August 1904, three months before the 1904 American presidential election, is a good example of this.

On the right, confidently sculling an eight on his own, is the incumbent, the Republican President, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt. Roosevelt had taken office in September 1901 following the assassination of President William McKinley. In the next few years he effectively maneuvered to gain control of the party and faced little opposition in becoming the Republican candidate in 1904.

The hackneyed use of the rowing metaphor in cartoons where politicians do or do not ‘pull together’ has a little more credibility in this case because, as HTBS has written of more than once, Teddy Roosevelt was a keen rower throughout his life, something he considered ‘a great and permanent amusement’.

The Republican candidates in 1904. The vice presidential candidate, CW Fairbanks, was a conservative balance to the more liberal Roosevelt.

As an aside to the above, many in other liberal democratic countries are often amused when Americans use the terms ‘liberal’ or ‘left’ or even ‘socialist’(!) to describe all or part of one of their two major parties. Admittedly, these can be relative terms, but many non-Americans would label today’s Democrats and Republicans as ‘conservatives’ and ‘ultra-conservatives’. There is further confusion due to the fact that in the U.S., political parties are loose coalitions with individual members adopting varying positions on many issues and only display some sort of unity during presidential elections.

Returning to the cartoon, it clearly suggests that the Democrat’s choice for candidate was not as straightforward as the Republican’s and eventually they had 13 candidates on the first ballot. The struggle inside the Democratic Party over the nomination proved to be as contentious as the later presidential election itself.

Only two of the Democratic hopefuls are widely remembered today. Rowing at ‘6’ is Stephen Grover Cleveland who had been the 22nd and 24th president of the United States, the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms in the office (1885–1889 and 1893–1897). At ‘4’ is the newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst. Surprisingly perhaps, Hearst was regarded as a progressive candidate and the prospect of having him chosen frightened conservative Democrats so much that they made every effort, fair and perhaps not-so-fair, to get their choice, Alton B. Parker, a little known judge, nominated on the first ballot. They succeeded in this but, in the 30th Presidential Election, Roosevelt easily defeated Parker.

The Democrat candidates for President and Vice President in 1904. Millionaire, Henry G. Davis was selected as the vice presidential candidate in the hope that he would partially finance Parker’s campaign.

Looking at the presidential primaries 115 years on, there seems little doubt that President Trump will be sculling alone in Roosevelt’s old seat despite speculation that he might face a Republican primary challenger following his controversial term in office. In February 2019, the Republican National Committee voted to provide undivided support to Trump.

Another Joseph Keppler cartoon from the early stages of the 1904 campaign, before the Democrats had selected Parker.

The caption for the cartoon above reads ‘Terrible Teddy’ waits for ‘The Unknown’. In 2019, so does Terrible Trump. The Democratic caucuses for the 2020 Presidential election do not officially start until 3 February, but the race is already in full swing. HTBS has previously looked at two of the candidates with experience of the stroke seat, ‘Beto’ O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg. The Wikipedia page for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries states:

The field of major Democratic presidential candidates in the 2020 election peaked at more than two dozen. As of September 20, 2019, nineteen major candidates are seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. 

If Keppler’s 1904 cartoon is to be repeated today, the Democrats are, in the words of the famous line from Jaws, ‘… gonna need a bigger boat’.

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