Al Gore and Bill Bradley strive mightily to match the fund-raising muscle of George W. Bush, and the Democrats dream that their "Leadership 2000" strategy will have the same soft-money success as the Republicans' "Team $1 Million." But Bush and the Republicans enjoy a critical advantage in the fund-raising sweepstakes, for ever since its birth amid America's industrial revolution, the party of business has been in the business of exploiting its members' hopes and fears regarding government and taking those hopes and fears to the bank.
In the decades after the Civil War, tariff protection was to the Republicans what tax reduction would become after World War II. Manufacturers agitated for protection against imports -- protection that translated into higher profits for the favored. GOP leaders were happy to oblige, for a price. The president of the Republican League of the United States, James P. Foster, phrased the concept most memorably in describing what might be expected from one state in particular: "I would put the manufacturers of Pennsylvania under the fire and fry all the fat out of them."
Fat-frying became a regular feature of Republican campaigns. Those who expected to benefit from the protective tariff were dunned to contribute to the election of protectionist members of Congress and protectionist presidents. John Wanamaker, the department-store magnate and a leading Republican fund-raiser, sent confidential circulars to the captains of industry: "We want money, and we want it quick!" Marcus A. Hanna, the organizational genius and first financial angel behind the rise of William McKinley, applied the principles of modern capitalism to American politics.
"Dollar Mark" adopted the view that political contributions were neither charity nor an optional manifestation of civic-mindedness but a straightforward cost of doing business. In the campaign of 1896, he established an assessment schedule under which corporations were expected to contribute according to a fixed percentage of their assets. In most cases the corporations paid -- and McKinley was elected.
The fat-frying filled the Republican coffers but inspired insipid politics. One who passed for an elder statesmen in the party was Sen. William Allison of Iowa, a man notorious for waffling on everything but the protective tariff. One story had him watching a flock of sheep pass by. "Fine sheep," observed a bystander. Allison allowed that they seemed to be good specimens, but he couldn't say for certain, not being an expert on sheep. The bystander said the sheep recently had been sheared. "Yes, they do appear to have been sheared," replied Allison, "at least on this side."
In time the money drove the process, occasionally against the will of the candidates. Theodore Roosevelt was far from a stooge of the industrialists, having shocked them by commencing his inherited presidency with an antitrust attack on J. P. Morgan's latest brainchild, the Northern Securities railroad combine. But when TR ran for election in his own right in 1904, his fund-raisers made the regular rounds (for Republicans) of corporate headquarters. Shortly before the election, the Democrats discovered that the Roosevelt campaign had received $100,000 from John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil trust.
TR's kinder critics assailed him for hypocrisy; the harsher alleged blackmail or bribery: a promise to Standard of antitrust leniency in exchange for campaign cash. Roosevelt denied all charges but ordered the money returned. Campaign treasurer Cornelius Bliss quietly ignored the order, keeping the money and keeping his mouth shut. (The story came out only years later.) It was precisely such abuses that prompted the reforms of the Progressive Era -- among them, the institution of presidential primaries, which required candidates to pass muster with ordinary voters before receiving the nomination of their parties. Money hardly disappeared from politics, but it had to work harder to accomplish its goals.
Ironically, the initial campaign of the 21st century (a campaign now fully begun) seems likely to be a throwback to the 19th century. George W. Bush, on the strength of his bulging war chest, has all but been nominated by the Republicans, half a year ahead of the first primary. Republicans in Congress have loaded up their tax bill with mouth-watering favors that have no chance of surviving the scrutiny of a Democratic president but are intended to open the wallets of Republicans eager to replace that president with one of their own.
The Democrats, of course, resist such replacement -- by means borrowed from the Republicans. President Clinton (the most Republican of Democrats) has long been a virtuoso at trolling for dollars, from Hollywood to the Lincoln Bedroom. Gore has been equally active, if less successful, and Bradley may yet make people think he earned his nickname "Dollar Bill" on the phone not the basketball court. Whichever party and candidate win in 2000, the victors will owe a debt to John Wanamaker and Mark Hanna. (The political debts, naturally, will be owed to those who wrote the checks.) The pattern is clear: the promises and warnings go out, the money comes in -- and the smell of frying fat fills the air.
H. W. Brands teaches history at Texas A&M University.