McKinley through Coolidge
When, in 1896, the Democratic party was captured by the radicals under William Jennings Bryan, its presidential candidate in 1896, 1900, and 1908, the Republican party became openly the champion of the gold standard and conservative economic doctrines. The conservatives, skillfully guided by national chairman Marcus A. Hanna, won with William McKinley in 1896 and 1900, and under such leaders as Nelson W. Aldrich, Thomas B. Reed, Joseph G. Cannon, Thomas C. Platt, and Matthew S. Quay, the party prospered. Theodore Roosevelt, successor to the assassinated McKinley, easily defeated the conservative Democrat Alton B. Parker in 1904, and the vigorous foreign policy of his administration fostered the belief that the Republicans stood for the imperialism represented by the recent Spanish-American War.
Under Roosevelt's Republican successor and friend, William Howard Taft, "dollar diplomacy" flourished, but a new rift appeared in the party. Insurgents led by Senator Robert M. La Follette balked at the party's conservatism and when the regulars renominated Taft in 1912, most of the dissidents withdrew and in the Bull Moose convention chose Roosevelt to lead the new Progressive party ticket. Because of this division, the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, was elected President and, narrowly reelected in 1916 over Charles Evans Hughes, he served through World War I. The party, however, won the Congressional elections of 1918, and Republican opposition was a large factor in defeating Wilson's peace program. By straddling the issue of the League of Nations and calling for a return to "normalcy," the party easily elected Warren G. Harding in 1920. His administration rivaled Grant's for corruption, but after Harding died in office, his successor, Calvin Coolidge, was returned over John W. Davis and La Follette.
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