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Your daily dose of unpersuasive counterfactuals

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Frum has an odd little piece about “the elections that went most disastrously wrong for the United States and the world.” Politely refusing to consider more recent contests, Frum decides instead to fixate on the three elections beginning with Wilson’s victory in 1912. Why? I honestly have no idea. It seems that Frum thinks the election of Wilson in 1912 and 1916 guaranteed that the US would neglect to enter the Great War until it was too late; that an earlier mobilization (under Taft or Hughes) would have resulted in a shorter war; and that with Zombie Theodore Roosevelt as president from 1921 onward, the post-war debt crisis might have been resolved in a way that discouraged the Germans from attempting to kill all the people.

The whole thing is just insufferably weird, especially as Frum claims to have turned his “‘what if?’ mind” to these elections “again and again” — though evidently without knowing much at all about them. This is especially so for Wilson’s election in 1912, which Frum suggests had something to do with Roosevelt refusing to “discipline himself” and accept Taft for another four years.

Hardly. Taft was a clumsy President who managed to alienate nearly everyone in the progressive wing of his own party by voting for a tariff bill they hated (and which he subsequently described as “the best bill” Republicans had ever passed), by firing Gifford Pinchot from the Forest Service, and for regarding the presidency in decidedly more conservative terms than Roosevelt had approached the job. Taft was, moreover, distracted by a horrific stroke suffered by his wife, Nellie, a mere two months into his term, as well as by what I’d have to describe as an overall dislike for the position. (In my never-to-be-written book, Presidents Who Hated Being President, Taft would be near the top of the list.) The Democratic Party, helped along by Republican infighting, absolutely clobbered the GOP in the 1910 elections, seizing 59 seats (and the majority) in the House while reducing their adversaries from 60 seats to 48 in the Senate. Heading into 1912, the Democrats could easily have nominated a cinder block, festooned it with tiny American flags, and defeated Taft with several electoral votes to spare. As it happened, the Democrats took the unusual route of selecting the strongest available (and perhaps the strongest possible) candidate, and they won a victory that was more or less inevitable. Roosevelt’s pride had nothing to do with it; he and his supporters would have sat out the election rather than swallow another four years of Taft. Indeed, if anyone could deny Wilson a victory by stepping aside, it would have been Taft himself — but in one of the great episodes of spite in American political history, Taft hung around and accepted the GOP nomination even though he understood that he was toast in the general election. The guy barely campaigned for another term — defeating Roosevelt was satisfaction enough.

But even if Taft had won in 1912, I have no idea why Frum thinks he’d have been able to persuade Congress (and a deeply ambivalent public) to enter the Great War before 1917. After all, Taft — unlike Frum’s former boss — rejected TR’s expansive view of presidential power. Even with fellow interventionists clamoring for blood, Taft most likely have relied on his “What the Fuck Am I Supposed to Do?” face to evade the problem altogether.

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