Miles Poindexter: Washington’s Political Changeling

One subject that has been of great fascination for a long time for me is that of political change. As a new resident of the state of Washington, this state’s politics have come to my attention. One politician on the federal level exhibited the greatest variance in their ideology was Republican Miles Poindexter.

1908 was a good year for the Republican Party. For the third time a Republican had defeated populistic Democrat William Jennings Bryan for president and on the coattails of Taft, Miles Poindexter (1868-1946) won election to the House. Although Poindexter had switched from Democrat to Republican in 1896 over his distaste of populism, he quickly identified with the insurgent wing of the GOP that was fed up with the conservative policies of Congressional leadership as well as President Taft’s acquiescence to them. Poindexter voted to strip Speaker Joe Cannon of much of his powers on March 19, 1910. That year, the Washington state legislature elected him to the Senate. As a senator, he continued his record as a progressive within the GOP and in 1912 he identified with the Bull Moose Progressives and from 1913 to 1915 was a member of the Progressive Party. Poindexter was accommodating to the Wilson Administration, only joining Robert La Follette of Wisconsin among non-Democrats to vote for the Underwood Tariff, was one of seven non-Democrats to vote for the establishment of the Federal Reserve, and voted for Wilson’s anti-trust legislation. He also called for a major public works programs to employ the unemployed, presaging New Deal policies. In 1915, Poindexter voted for a proposal that would exclude all blacks from immigrating to the United States and voted for another one which would exclude all non-whites from immigrating. Poindexter had an upbringing as a Southern Democrat and his father had been a Confederate veteran so it is possible such an upbringing motivated these views. However, Poindexter did not back a proposal to limit women’s suffrage to white women. He was also supportive of women’s suffrage overall and Prohibition.

During World War I, Poindexter was one of the most recognizable and loud of nationalists, calling for deportation of IWW radicals (even though he had sympathized with an IWW strike in 1912) and supporting government crackdowns on people who spoke out against American efforts in World War I. He was hawkish and criticized Wilson for not being strong enough in prosecuting the war effort and was a strong advocate for intervention in Latin American affairs. Poindexter was one of ten Senate Republicans to vote for the Sedition Act of 1918, which was supported by most Democrats and mostly opposed by a combination of conservative and progressive Republicans that restricted free speech. After the 1918 midterms, Poindexter’s overall record went conservative. In the 65th Congress, his MC-Index score was a 24% but in the 66th it was an 88%. He was one of the 15-16 irreconcilables on the Versailles Treaty, not supporting the treaty under any conditions. He gave himself credit for pushing Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to conduct his raids on radicals in 1919 and 1920 (Prabook). In 1920, Poindexter ran for the Republican nomination for president as a staunch conservative, but was never considered a serious candidate.

During the Harding Administration, Poindexter embraced higher tariffs, lower income taxes, and an overall reduced government agenda. In some ways, curiously, he represented the American public’s shifts on reform: enthusiastic about reform during the Progressive Era, and then turning conservative with World War I’s conclusion. The voters of Washington, having reelected him in 1916 with 55% of the vote, were not pleased with his shift, especially with his resistance to using government to aid agriculture, and in the 1922 midterms he lost a three-way race to former Democratic Congressman Clarence Dill. He subsequently served as Ambassador to Peru under Harding and Coolidge. In 1928, Poindexter attempted a rematch, but lost the Republican primary to Chief Justice of the Washington Supreme Court Kenneth Mackintosh, who lost the election. He subsequently retired to his family estate in Virginia, where he died in 1946 of a heart attack in his sleep. Poindexter’s lifetime MC-Index score was a 44%, with a low in the 62nd Congress, in which he scored a 19%, and a high in the 66th Congress.

Miles Poindexter. Prabook.

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Miles Poindexter papers, 1897-1940. Orbis Cascade Alliance.

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