Will this year be an 1860 moment? No such luck

In an interview with Chuck Todd, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse discussed the possibility that this year’s election might be “an 1860 moment.” He’s referring to the dissolution of the Whig Party and its replacement by the Republicans. The process produced “four-ish choices” (as Sasse put it) in 1860, and he submits that if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, “the American people are going to get a lot better choices in November.”

The closer analogy might be to 1856, the first year in which there was a Republican nominee (John Charles Fremont). That year produced a three-man race that also included Democrat James Buchanan and former president Millard Fillmore of the American (or “Know Nothing”) party.

Fillmore didn’t at all resemble Donald Trump in most respects. However, he was, in effect, the standard-bearer of the pre-existing party (he had been a Whig president), as Trump likely will be this year. Moreover, the American party was strongly nativist.

Buchanan, the Democrat, won in 1856. He turned out to be the worst president in American history, in my view. Just saying.

I see 2020, not 2016, as the potential 1860 moment. Assuming Trump is nominated, don’t expect a Lincolnesque figure to save the day this year. But assuming Trump loses, I see the conservative movement rallying around a formidable, reliable, and electable conservative in four years.

In some ways, 2016 reminds me of certain elections later in the 19th century. On several occasions, the GOP nominated candidates so unappealing to many prominent Republicans that they flirted with (and in some instances supported) opposition candidates. The unappealing nominees were President Grant (1872) and James Blaine (1884). The conflicted Republicans were men like Carl Schurz, Henry Cabot Lodge, and the young Theodore Roosevelt.

Decades later, Roosevelt bolted the GOP to run as a third-party candidate against William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. The election of 1912 made an indelible impression on Republicans, all but killing the third party impulse for generations.

In 1964, when my liberal Republican congressman (and later Senator) Charles “Mac” Mathias, refused to denounce the candidacy of ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater, he explained to his unhappy constituents that he remembered his father and grandfather talking about how disastrous the 1912 Republican breach had been.

Since 1964, we have seen Democrats vote in large numbers for Richard Nixon (1972) and Ronald Reagan (1980 and 1984). We have also seen Republican voters fail to turnout to the degree the party hoped. But only in 1992 did Republican voters support to any appreciable degree a candidate other than the GOP nominee. And even then, Republican leaders and prominent personalities steadfastly backed the party’s nominee.

Remembering the 1992 outcome should send a shiver down the spine of Republicans — the same sort that Mac Mathias talked about when speaking of the 1912 election. Many conservative Republicans may soon have to decide which is more intense — that shiver or the one caused by the thought of a Donald Trump presidency.