Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Four:
The Triumph of Reaction


Progressives and the Election of 1920

VII. The Democrats' Lowden

I. A Rematch Not to Be
II. The Man on Horseback
III. The Men in the Middle
IV. I'm for Hiram
V. Visions of a Third Term
VI. Ambition in the Cabinet
VII. The Democrats' Lowden
VIII. The Great Engineer
IX. The Smoke-Filled Room
X. San Francisco
XI. A Third Party?
XII. Mr. Ickes' Vote
XIII. Countdown to a Landslide
XIV. The Triumph of Reaction

While administration backers split between McAdoo and Palmer (not to mention the ghost of the president himself), other Democrats -- with an eye to Wilson's growing unpopularity in a time of chaos and high costs -- began to look elsewhere for a 1920 nominee. One solid, if uninspiring such candidate was Governor James M. Cox of Ohio, a self-made newspaperman who had the political savvy to be a progressive reformer from 1912-1914 (elected in 1912, Cox emphasized public infrastructure like schools and roads and passed workman's compensation and pension laws), a pacifist from 1916-1917 (when Wilson worked to keep America out of war), and a pro-war nationalist from 1917 on. (Among other things, Governor Cox created an Americanization committee -- chaired by later New Deal brains truster Raymond Moley -- and signed into law a bill abolishing use of the German language in schools.)1

In other words, like Governor Frank Lowden across the aisle, Cox was for the most part an unoffensive figure to all sides. "[W]ithout having irreconcilably antagonized those who regard the Democratic party as a staunch defender of the status quo," Charles Merz wrote of him in TNR, "he has caught the eye of those who look upon it as the country's most successful instrument of progress." Perhaps even more intriguing, Cox had the added benefit of being "outside the shadow of the White House, no part of the official family, a man who has neither fought the President nor bled for him." The governor was similarly agnostic on the League question - Cox had "made a number of orthodox statements" for the League, and his "campaign managers declare him a loyal supporter of the president." But Governor Cox also supported reservations, and thought the League a question unsuited to partisan politics regardless. As Merz put it, "the one most heartfelt thing that Cox has said about discussion of the League was…'The public is sick and tired of it.'"2

To progressives like Merz, Cox - despite his anti-German stance during the war - also seemed to have kept a reasonable distance from the repression that had marked the Wilson administration. Noting with approval that Cox, as Governor, had never called out the militia to end a strike in Ohio, Merz lauded Cox's "considerable courage and a good deal of self-possession…[W]hen representatives of an ostensibly Jeffersonian administration like Palmer and Burleson have bludgeoned public opinion, and other representatives, like Wilson and Baker, have stood by in silence, Cox was willing to hold out against the alarmist press and the persuasive push of the steel companies." Within the party, foreshadowing a schism that would lay Democrats bare four years later, the governor was also a popular choice with urban Wets looking to offset the rural Dryness of William McAdoo and back a wet candidate who would bring in northern ethnic voters to the polls. In short, Cox seemed to be the antithesis of everything people didn't like about Wilsonism.3

The governor further helped his case, for the most part, by laying low: After announcing his intentions to run in February 1920 , Cox - aside from a minor foray into the nearby Kentucky primary - kept his powder dry until San Francisco. "My friends are urging me to open up a vigorous campaign," Cox explained, "[b]ut I prefer to wait. If, when the convention opens, they finally turn to Ohio, all right. We either have an ace in the hole, or we haven't. If we have an ace concealed, we win; if we haven't, no amount of bluffing and advertising can do much good."4

Continue to Chapter 4, Pt. 8: The Great Engineer.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Bagby, 74-75. Ohio Historical Society, "Anti-German Sentiment" (http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=1578) Carol Schmid, The Politics of Language: Conflict, Identity, and Cultural Pluralism in Comparative Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 36.
2. Charles Merz, "Two Leading Democratic Candidates," The New Republic, June 2, 1920 (Vol. XXIII, No. 287), 12.
3. Merz. Bagby, 74-76.
4. Bagby, 74-76. Governor Cox won 20 of 26 delegates in Kentucky, which he added to his own Ohio delegation.

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