The reasons I've always felt this election was significant are several:
(1) Two candidates, representing mainstream political efforts to co-opt and undercut the incipient radicalism then growing in the American body politic, offered progressive political agendas: Governor Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, and former President Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive or Bull Moose candidate. Wilson polled about 6-million votes, TR just over 4-million that year. Between the two of them, Roosevelt and Wilson probably spared the country a move to radicalism that would have had dreadful consequences when the Great Depression hit some seventeen years later.
(2) Roosevelt's form of conservatism was effectively thwarted as a force within the Republican Party, by his defeat that year. TR, natural heir of Lincolnian conservatism, could not wrest the 1912 Republican nomination from his former protege, William Howard Taft. Today, I think it's safe to say that TR's and Lincoln's stripe of conservatism, one that believes in vibrant internationalism and saving free enterprise by preserving economic opportunity for the middle and lower classes, later championed by Dwight Eisenhower, is in some ways absent from the Republican Party.
(3) Debs' run in 1912 represents the climax of socialism in America. He received about 900,000 votes. After opposing American entry into the First World War and being convicted and imprisoned for that opposition, Debs remained a force, but a diminishing one in US politics. Many of his ideas were later incorporated into both the Republican and Democratic platforms, where they were domesticated.
(4) The rupture of the friendship between Taft and Roosevelt is the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. Taft had never wanted to be president, but both his wife and TR had insisted on his ascendancy to the office. He was miserable as President, but he fought to keep the office, feeling that TR had betrayed him, much as TR felt that Taft had betrayed him by appointing more reactionary conservatives to his Cabinet and for certain perceived departures from Roosevelt's policies.
I'm only about fifty pages into Chace's book. But one fact that he underscores so far is how seemingly inconsequential statements that are tossed off almost thoughtlessly can have huge consequences. Two examples:
- Theodore Roosevelt's statement on the night of his huge electoral victory in 1904, that he would not seek re-election in 1908. You'll remember that TR had succeeded William McKinley to the presidency when the McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt could have run for re-election in 2004 without raising a ruckus over violating the custom of Presidents serving but two terms. (That was a taboo which his relative, Franklin Roosevelt, would later successfully violate.)
- William Howard Taft's enthusiastic endorsement of the Payne-Aldrich tariff, in spite of the fact that he had huge personal reservations about it. It allowed him to be painted as a reactionary, against the common people of the Midwest and the South.
Both statements were slips of the tongue which both men later came to regret. Had Roosevelt not made his pledge, he no doubt would have been renominated in 1908, carrying a Congress of like-minded Republicans into office with him, smoothing the way for his agenda.
Had Taft not said what he did about the tariff, he would have probably blunted efforts by some to drive a wedge between himself and TR, who had already indicated a preference for seeing Taft renominated in 1912. But his words became a mallet used over his head, convincing the nearly-messianic Roosevelt of the need for his candidacy.
So far, I'm enjoying Chace's book a lot!
UPDATE: Here is the transcript of Brian Lamb's BookNotes interview with James Chace, conducted last year. Man, I still miss BookNotes, the only TV show I watched virtually every week during its run!