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The Taft Record
Although conservative by inclination, William Howard Taft achieved a significant record of reform during his presidential term (1909-1913).  First, he made good on his 1908 campaign promise to revise the tariff.  The resulting Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of August 1909 was not as substantial as he had hoped; it lowered the overall tariff rate by only five percent (to 41%) and actually raised rates on crucial resources like coal and iron ore.  Nevertheless, it was the first successful attempt at tariff reform in 15 years, and included the president’s suggestion of a tariff commission to study rates and recommend further changes.  To gain popular support for the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act and other policies, Taft followed President Theodore Roosevelt’s example of taking his case directly to the American people.  Lacking his predecessor’s charisma, Taft’s stumping rarely resulted in widespread approval, but instead provoked press criticism that he was neglecting the responsibilities of office.  Although he liked to socialize and was frequently seen on the golf course, Taft was diligent and attentive to his official duties.

The Taft administration put Roosevelt’s conservation policies on firmer legal ground.  However, in early 1910, Taft angered the former president and other environmentalists by firing Gifford Pinchot, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who had accused Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger of colluding with coal companies to plunder federal reserves in Alaska.  Ballinger was exonerated by a Congressional investigation, but he resigned.  The Taft administration also advanced a series of antitrust lawsuits far more numerous and effective than under Roosevelt the “trustbuster,” resulting in the breakup of Standard Oil and the American Tobacco Company.  In 1910, Taft signed the Mann-Elkins Act, which enhanced the authority of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to set maximum rates charged by railroads.  It also prohibited higher rates for short hauls, and placed telegraph and telephone companies under ICC regulations. 

In addition, the Taft administration oversaw the near-completion of the Panama Canal, established a separate Department of Labor (formerly merged with the Department of Commerce), regulated political contributions from business corporations, imposed an eight-hour day on federal public works projects, and enhanced the Pure Food and Drug Act.  Taft appointed six Supreme Court justices and almost half of the federal judges during his single presidential term.  At the president’s direction, Secretary of State Philander Knox pursued what critics called “Dollar Diplomacy,” attempting to foster stability in Latin America through investments by American banks and industry.  Taft justified the doctrine as an extension of the Monroe Doctrine.  In 1912, he dispatched the marines to put down a rebellion against the pro-American government in Nicaragua.  A reciprocal trade agreement with Canada was rejected by Canadian voters. 

The Republican Nomination
In the two previous presidential elections, the Republican incumbents—William McKinley in 1900 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1904—were nominated for second terms without serious opposition.  A solid record of accomplishment and an overall good economy could have led President Taft to gain the same honor in 1912.  He solidified and built on a foundation laid by the Roosevelt administration for the federal regulation of business, society, and the natural environment.  However, many progressives developed a more radical agenda, which included greater government intervention in the economy (even to the point of controlling major industries), removal of legal obstacles to trade unionism, and mechanisms for more direct democracy—direct election of U.S. senators, ballot initiative, and recall of public officials.  Congressional Republicans divided into progressive and conservative factions, and the president increasingly sided with the latter.

Taft probably could have survived the party’s ideological conflict had he not personally offended his political mentor, Theodore Roosevelt.  They were quickly at odds when Taft replaced most of Roosevelt’s cabinet in 1909 with more conservative men.  In early 1910, Taft’s firing of Chief Forester Pinchot was seen by progressive Republicans as a betrayal of the former president and his principle of environmental conservation.  Still, the president and his mentor maintained a cordial, if strained, relationship.

During the 1910 congressional election, Roosevelt supported both Taft’s candidates in New York and progressives in the West.  On August 31, his “New Nationalism” speech anticipated the modern welfare state in which a strong federal government intervened to help workers and consumers against the negative effects of big business (which he accepted as “the result of an imperative economic law”).  Taft and conservative Republicans were shocked by the ex-president’s lurch to the left. 

The election resulted in a shift of power between the parties, as Democrats took control of the House, and within the GOP, as progressives gained seats.  In December, the National Progressive Republican League was formed to promote reform legislation and, implicitly, to replace Taft with a progressive nominee, presumably Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin.  Although dismissed as the “new Salvation Army” by President Taft, the group held the balance of power in the 62nd Congress (1911-1913).

In 1911, Roosevelt became a contributing editor of Outlook magazine, which he used as a platform for his political views.  He occasionally corresponded with Taft, but mainly communicated with the progressive wing.  Roosevelt told the press he was not a candidate, and refused to discuss other possible candidates.  Privately, he criticized Taft and La Follette, while assuming that the president would be renominated and then lose the general election. 

Meanwhile, Taft hurt his standing among GOP conservatives by his administration’s vigorous antitrust policy.  However, it was the “trust-buster” ex-president who broke irrevocably with his successor over the antitrust suit against the United States Steel Corporation.  Unknown to Taft, his administration’s brief against US Steel cited the firm’s purchase of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company in 1907, which had been approved by then-President Roosevelt.  The ex-president was furious, and soon indicated to friends that he might seek the party’s nomination.  Roosevelt wanted it to seem like a response to popular demand, so he and his advisors wrote a public petition, which was signed by eight Republican governors, beseeching him to run.  On February 12, 1912, he announced his presidential candidacy with a slang phrase spoken by cowboys preparing to fight:  “My hat is in the ring.”

Roosevelt’s entry into the race for the Republican nomination undercut the La Follette campaign, but the Wisconsin senator continued campaigning through the convention.  On February 22, the former president’s “Charter for Democracy” speech added the recall of judicial decisions (subject only to Supreme Court review) to his growing list of direct democracy initiatives.  The controversial suggestion moved even some of his conservative friends, such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Elihu Root, into Taft’s column.  Since President Taft had patronage and the loyalty of many state party organizations, Roosevelt hoped to amass delegates in states holding preferential primaries in which voters cast ballots directly.  It was the first presidential contest in American history in which primaries played a key role.

Roosevelt’s campaigning compelled Taft to hit the hustings, and both engaged in personal verbal sparring that tended to obscure the issues.  Roosevelt called Taft a “fathead” who was “dumber than a guinea pig,” to which the initially stunned president responded by labeling his challenger a “demagogue” and a “dangerous egotist.”  The intense rivalry between their supporters erupted in fistfights, lockouts, and riots at local and state conventions.  Roosevelt won 9 of 12 primaries—Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio (Taft’s home state), Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, and California—losing to Taft narrowly in Massachusetts and to La Follette in Wisconsin and North Dakota.  The former president won 51% of the total primary vote to Taft’s 33.5% and La Follette’s 15.5%.  Since the incumbent president did well in non-primary states, the delegate count on the eve of the convention was:  432 for Roosevelt, 326 for Taft, and 41 for La Follette. 


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