We are reminded of Missouri’s political “Possum Policy” as we watch the national Republican Party face the possibility that Donald Trump will go to its national convention with the nomination locked up. Or thinks he has it locked up.
While some people might be looking at the situation with delight, we are watching from our lofty position with some sympathy. Who among us has not been in a situation where you find you must sit at the same table with someone who has said or done things that are personally embarrassing to us? Magnify that a few million times and you approach the discomfort of one of our major political parties. What do you do with someone who brings a skunk to a cat show?
Some party leaders who hoped “anybody but Trump” would emerge from the primaries have now said they’ll vote for him if he’s the nominee, which is hardly a resounding endorsement. Now, even some of those people are appalled at Trump’s comment about an Indiana judge hearing the lawsuit against Trump University and some things he has said since the Orlando shootings. But Trump is unrepentant.
Even if he does begin to sound more mainstream, his credibility is a problem because of the face he has presented to the world day after day, month after month. Leopards can’t change their spots. (Well, actually they can but it’s an evolutionary thing. Individual leopards can’t. We checked. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/eb4f6f88-e169-11df-90b7-00144feabdc0.html.)
This is what happened in post-Civil War Missouri when one of the major political parties found itself in a situation too awkward to deal with—as some Republicans might view their situation now. We’re not suggesting the national Republican Party should consider this option. But some say this plan saved one of the parties in Missouri. Maybe there’s a lesson here somewhere.
The Democratic Party was weak after the Civil War and the Republican Party became badly split between Liberal and Radical elements. The Radical Republicans had been in control of Missouri during the war and in 1865 pushed a new, punitive, state constitution into effect. The Liberals split with the Radicals in 1870.
Democratic leaders decided not to field a candidate for governor that year and supported the Liberal Republicans, putting their efforts into strengthening their numbers in the legislature and among Missouri’s congressional delegation. The idea was branded as “the possum policy.” And it worked.
Liberal Republican B. Gratz Brown, supported by the Democratic Party, defeated incumbent Joseph McClurg, a Radical, with more than 62 percent of the vote. Missouri’s congressional delegation went from 7-2 Republican to 5-4 Republican. Democrat Francis Preston Blair Jr., who had campaigned aggressively against the loyalty oath in the 1865 constitution, replaced Charles Daniel Drake, the architect of the 1865 Constitution, in the U.S. Senate. Drake had resigned to take a federal judgeship offered by President Grant, who did not seem to find Radicalism all that bad.
Blair became a strong critic in the Senate of the Radical Republican reconstruction work in the South. In 1872, the Liberal Republicans and the Democrats combined to make Brown the Liberal Republican Vice-Presidential candidate with newspaper editor Horace Greeley at the top of the ticket. They lost to incumbent President Grant and the Liberal revolt pretty much died with that election. But along the way Radical Republican rule died in Missouri, too. Democrat Silas Woodson was elected governor in 1872, and Missouri’s Congressional delegation went to 9-4 Democratic. (Yes, we went from nine to thirteen congressmen after the 1870 census).
Governors had two-year terms then.
Some historians think the Possum Policy gave the Democrats the breathing room they needed to rebuild through legislative and congressional elections while avoiding a crushing defeat at the top of the ticket that might have had negative ripples down the ballot. By not running a candidate for governor in 1870 and uniting with Liberal Republicans, they helped kill the Radical movement and gained time to rebuild their own strength to win in 1872.
Without diving too deeply into political analysis, it can be observed that the Republican Party today finds itself split along Radical and Moderates (the mainline GOP probably would not appreciate being labeled with the 19th Century “Liberal” designation) factions. But in the end, it was the more moderate wing that survived.
National Republicans in 2016 can’t adopt a Possum Policy and refuse to field a candidate for President. And there is no suggestion here that they should, no matter how uncomfortable Donald Trump makes the mainline party members feel. But Missouri’s Possum Policy story might indicate disaster is not inevitable even if the short-term outlook is grim.