07 March 1916 – Question Time
The United States does not have a parliamentary legislature, so the president is directly elected and not subject to votes of confidence or ‘question time.’ But the Democrats who run Congress in 1916 have still weighed their support of President Woodrow Wilson, especially since he came out in favor of military ‘preparedness‘ during January. Embarking on a nationwide speaking tour, Wilson carried his message directly to the American people: the Army and Navy are too small and poorly-equipped to defend the country in a modern conflict, and being ready for war does not mean giving up on peace.
Disturbed by the rising calls to patriotism and Wilson’s diplomatic stance towards German submarine warfare, his former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan has visited Washington, DC twice in recent weeks to rally Democrats against both aspects of his former boss’s policy. Bryan fears that Wilson’s refusal to ban Americans from travelling on belligerent nations’ vessels, such as the doomed Lusitania, will draw America into the war.
But a February compromise with lawmakers regarding the Army Reserve has much reduced friction in Congress. Turning to the submarine question, five days ago Wilson dispatched his Treasury Secretary William McAdoo and Postmaster Albert Burleson to Capitol Hill with a handwritten appeal to “clear up the existing situation and relieve the present embarrassment of the Administration in dealing with the foreign relations of the country.” On the following day, the Senate tabled a resolution criticizing Wilson’s submarine policy in a 68-14 vote; today the House of Representatives follows suit 276-142. Only two Democrats in the Senate and 33 in the House oppose the motion. Having secured his left flank, Wilson can now focus on the general election.
Indeed, the quadrennial contest is foremost in his mind. Taking a dual-track approach, Wilson dispatched his right-hand man, ‘Colonel’ Edward House, to Europe on a secret mission to build support for a peace conference even while going on his preparedness tour. Having enacted every major plank of his 1912 platform, Wilson now looks to campaign on his successes.
Wilson came to office in a unique four-way race. On the far left was Socialist Eugene V. Debs, who will not be running this year. When incumbent Republican William Howard Taft shut the convention floor to supporters of Theodore Roosevelt, the former president ran an independent campaign. Although Wilson won the popular vote by double-digits, he only held a plurality instead of a majority.
Now seeking to become the first Democrat since Andrew Jackson to be elected to two consecutive terms, Wilson faces only the marginal threat of Socialists on his left and an incoherent Republican Party on his right. His new platform will include women’s suffrage, a ban on child labor, prison reform, and an international league of states to maintain global peace after the war — progressive planks that the Socialists complain have been stolen from them.
“The Democratic platform does not differ from the Republican platform fundamentally at all,” complains John M. Work, founding member of the American Socialist Party. And in fact the GOP is unable to convincingly differentiate itself from the Democrats in this cycle. In a speech last month, Roosevelt ally Elihu Root said 8,000 words without articulating a clear message, slamming Wilson for not being warlike enough while never promising to do more against Germany than talk tougher than Wilson. Harming his own party again, Roosevelt spends the campaign season making bellicose statements to a population that remains deeply suspicious of militarism. As a result of his saber-rattling, Republican nominee Charles J. Hughes is easily framed as the war candidate even though his views are very close to Wilson’s.
To that end, ‘Colonel’ House has exactly the man in mind to handle an aggressive campaign: US Mint Director Robert Woolley. It is a year of experimentation, with Iowa holding its very last primary vote in April before switching to a caucus system, and New Hampshire holding its very first primary as well. A savvy communicator, Woolley will virtually invent the modern political campaign this year. Elements that we consider routine a century later, such as messaging, microtargeting, opposition research, and professional public relations staff, will be pioneered this year. Woolley supplies newspaper editors with copy, poses questions for Hughes to reporters, and places campaign newsreels in theaters.
But Wilson and Woolley reject the most famous slogan of the campaign — “He kept us out of war” — as a promise that cannot be guaranteed in such a volatile world. Instead, it is adopted by local campaign committees, who use it everywhere. Less than a year from today, antiwar figures will throw the phrase back at Wilson with contempt.