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A brief history of the term RINO, from Roosevelt to Boehner

Where RINO — Republican in name only — came from.

These are definitely rhinos. The rest is up for debate.
These are definitely rhinos. The rest is up for debate.
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

In the wake of John Boehner's resignation last Friday, one quote given before the resignation stands out. In an interview with Politico's Jake Sherman, Boehner said, "And the idea that I’m the establishment, that I’m some RINO, is just laughable." A few days after that interview he was gone, and anti-RINO sentiment may have been one reason why.

The term RINO — short for "Republican in name only" — has become a common and potent term used by conservative Republicans who believe an officeholder has fallen short of certain political ideals. But it's a relatively recent acronym that shows how, over the years, ways of labeling Republican heterodoxy have changed.

Teddy Roosevelt was the first true RINO

It's pretty easy to find a picture of Teddy Roosevelt with almost any dead animal.

It's pretty easy to find a picture of Teddy Roosevelt with almost any dead animal.

Library of Congress

The Republican Party wasn't founded until 1854, and it took a while for an orthodoxy to develop, let alone RINOs who strayed. That means the numerous earlier appearances of the phrase "Republican in name only" had a different meaning.

As early as 1865, people were using "republican in name only" for "republicanism" with a small "r" — they were describing governments that claimed to be representative, but were actually autocratic. It was a political slur, to be sure, but it didn't refer to "Republicans" as we think of them today. The small-r "republican in name only" was used in the 1800s and throughout the 20th century as well.

As ideas about the Republican Party formed, however, there soon became an orthodoxy to offend, and "Republicans in name only" emerged. For example, in the 1890s in the Indianapolis Journal, a judicial appointee was called a "Republican in name only" (though in that case not as a slur, but as a compliment to soothe worried Democrats).

"Republican in name only" fear finally found a perfect target when Teddy Roosevelt took over the presidency. As a famously trust-busting Republican who'd later start the Progressive Party, Roosevelt was always suspect. In 1906, the North American Review journal addressed the tension that put him under fire, noting that between progressive and conservative Republicans, "either one must be Republican in name only." The phrase was used often during Roosevelt's presidency, "according to Republicans who have found fault with his utterances."

But the next RINO boomlet came under Theodore Roosevelt's relative, Franklin, who greatly polarized the country.

FDR courts "me too" Republicans

FDR saw the rise of "me too" Republicans

FDR saw the rise of "me too" Republicans.

Library of Congress

FDR embodied a mass Democratic wave after a decade of Republican presidents, and it was a difficult adjustment for Republicans. FDR's lengthy presidency polarized the country, and as Republicans found themselves outside of power, something called "me too" Republicans became a common target — they said "me too" to whatever FDR proposed. There were definitely "Republicans in name only" during the FDR era, but William Safire, writing in Safire's Political Dictionary in 1993, pegged these "me too" Republicans as the chief pariahs.

It makes sense that in an era of Democratic political dominance, Republicans were more concerned about politicians who copied Democrats than about the intra-party squabbles that "Republicans in name only" signifies. Although "Republicans in name only" appeared in a media trickle throughout the next 50 years, it wasn't until the 1990s that the term had a true renaissance — and became the acronym we know today.

The RINO is born, partly as a reaction to Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton circa late 1992, when the RINO was born

Bill Clinton circa late 1992, when the RINO was born.

Brad Markel/Keystone/CNP/Getty Images

Terms like "me too Republican" had appeared when the party faced a crisis, and the acronym RINO finally emerged under similar circumstances.

In the early 1990s, the Republican Party was adjusting to a Democrat in the White House after 12 years of Republican rule. The first generally acknowledged print appearance of the RINO acronym came in a December 1992 article by John DiStaso in the New Hampshire Union Leader, who used it just after Clinton's electoral victory:

Bill Clinton would have been proud of what was happening on the third-floor Senate corner at the State House this week ... The Republicans were moving out and the Democrats and "RINOs" (Republicans In Name Only) were moving in.

Many of those early RINO references show up in New Hampshire. DiStaso's a longtime New Hampshire political reporter, and he recalls hearing "Reprocrat" around the newsroom as well. He told me that he wrote both "DINO" (Democrat in name only") and RINO in those days, and both terms were used with a light touch.

"I remember having some fun with it with some members of the state legislature," he says. "I never wanted to label anyone, but it just sort of stuck."

California was home to other early RINO sightings, where Republicans were similarly embattled. In 1993, Republican Celeste Greig handed out RINO buttons that featured a red slash and the word RINO, and according to the Los Angeles Times, she was still doing so in 1994.

"Republican in name only" had been reborn as a funny acronym, and combined with a Clinton White House and 1994's Republican revolution, RINOs became a familiar breed. Though the term is a bit too broad to analyze using Google's search data (there are a few other things named Rino), it's probably safe to say that the use of RINO has only risen in popularity since.

That's continued today as the Tea Party challenges establishment Republicans on their credentials.

Why not DINO?

But there's one lingering question: Why aren't DINOs as big a phenomenon? It might be because other terms for heterodox Democrats have always been popular (think Blue Dog Democrats and Yellow Dog Democrats), or it could be because someone's "progressive" nature has become the watchword for their authenticity.

John DiStaso, who may have helped RINO enter the lexicon, is hesitant to offer a theory. But when pushed, he has a good idea why RINO won out: "Maybe it's just because it sounds better."