COLUMBUS: Jonathan Rauch could use some help from Akron’s Ray Bliss.
It’s too late for that, of course, because Bliss died at age 73 in 1981.
Rauch’s recent article in The Atlantic, “How American Politics Went Insane,” describes the nation’s two-party system and party leaders as impotent.
The result is a “chaos syndrome” in which little vital business gets done and party loyalty means little. Instead, a presidential candidate such as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz builds himself up by tearing his party down. On the Democratic side, an independent like Sen. Bernie Sanders becomes a nominal Democrat just to seek the presidential nomination.
The old system could be devious, secretive and self-serving, but it “held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time,” Rauch writes.
“A loyal, time-serving member of Congress could expect easy renomination, financial help, promotion through the ranks of committees and leadership jobs, and a new airport for his district,” writes Rauch. “A turncoat or troublemaker, by contrast, could expect to encounter ostracism, marginalization and difficulties with fund-raising.”
That’s how Bliss operated as chairman of the Republican Party at the county, state and national levels.
As Summit County Republican chairman in Akron, he met regularly with Republican mayors and city council members to develop a Republican agenda that everybody could support — or suffer the consequences of not supporting.
As state chairman in Columbus, Bliss sometimes had trouble reining in independent-minded Republican governors such as C. William “Billy” O’Neill and James A. Rhodes.
Republicans in the Ohio House and Senate, however, regularly met with Bliss to develop a united approach to legislation. The late William Saxbe, who became speaker of the Ohio House with Bliss’ help, remembered the meetings.
“It wasn’t what was discussed there. It was the fact that we were working together and had a good relationship. It was so casual that nobody presided,” Saxbe, who went on to be a U.S. senator and U.S. attorney general, told me.
Saxbe also learned the hard way that friendship didn’t trump party loyalty. When U.S. Sen. Robert A. Taft, “Mr. Republican,” died in 1953, Democratic Gov. Frank Lausche appointed fellow Democrat Thomas Burke, mayor of Cleveland, to fill the seat. A special election would be held in 1954 to determine who would serve the final two years of Taft’s term.
Bliss would have preferred working behind the scenes to come up with a consensus candidate, but he was temporarily sidelined with hepatitis. U.S. Rep. George Bender of Cleveland, who previously had been a Bliss critic, managed to get the party’s endorsement for the primary.
Saxbe considered Bender a “clown” and decided to seek the nomination. He got no help from Bliss.
“In view of the endorsement of the Republican state committee and in the interest of party harmony in Ohio, I strongly urged him [Saxbe] not to be a candidate,” Bliss said. “I also told him the Republican committee would wage a vigorous and aggressive campaign to nominate its endorsees, and they include George Bender.”
Bender defeated Saxbe in the primary and went on to win the general election.
This year national Republican national chairman Reince Priebus faced a challenge similar to Bliss’. Some establishment Republicans — including 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney — refused to back Donald Trump as the GOP candidate for president. Grass-roots Republicans in primaries and caucuses made Trump their choice, and Priebus honored that decision.
When Bliss became national Republican chairman in 1965, he met regularly with Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate. He also worked hard to assure a level playing field for all candidates for the party’s 1968 presidential nomination. This irked Richard M. Nixon, the eventual nominee and the winner in the presidential election, and contributed to Nixon’s decision to force Bliss’ resignation as national chairman.
Bliss was a Republican because he believed “that the Republican Party offers the best hope for government which is efficient, yet economical; government that is alert to the changing times, yet guided by common sense; government which is compassionate to the needs of the people, yet wise in the execution of programs to meet those needs.”
But his allegiance to the two-party system was almost as strong as his devotion to Republicans.
The system provided the accountability and structure that Rauch finds badly lacking today.
“I got into politics because I believe in two strong parties,” Bliss said. “I believe the two-party system provides us the best government.”
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He is writing a biography of Ray C. Bliss with John C. Green, the director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. Hershey can be reached at email@example.com.