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Posts Tagged ‘History of Presidential Campaigning’

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2012

They’re long, exhausting, and sometimes appalling, but America’s raucous presidential campaigns are also testimony to the success of its continually evolving democracy.

“The people have nominated you without any pledges or engagements of any sort . . . and they want you to do nothing at present but allow yourself to be elected,” the poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant told Abraham Lincoln in 1860. “Make no speeches, write no letters as a candidate, enter into no pledges, make no promises.” As Americans grumble, in what has become a quadrennial ritual, that the presidential campaign is too long, too nasty, and too frivolous, they should consider whether they would really prefer a return to the 19th-century rules of the game that are so often held up as an alternative.

A look back at the evolution of the presidential campaign since the early days of the Republic highlights the remarkable democratic achievements of the last two centuries. America’s presidential campaign process works. It sifts through candidates, facilitates a continent-wide conversation, and, most important, bestows legitimacy on the winner. Presidential campaigns are intense, long, and costly because they are popular, consequential, and continental in scope. Most aspects of the campaigns that Americans hate reflect the democracy we love….READ MORE

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, NYT, 12-2-11

To select someone worthy of sitting in George Washington’s chair, sleeping in Abraham Lincoln’s bed and governing from Franklin Roosevelt’s desk, Americans crave a substantial presidential campaign, as long as they don’t have to endure too many boring speeches. Like every human decision-making process, presidential campaigns seesaw between the serious and the silly.

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, political science and the dismal science demonstrate what we know intuitively, that human decision-making involves our heads and our hearts. We are neither fully rational nor totally emotional. Similarly, campaigns fluctuate between profound policy exchanges and trivial personality clashes, between significant indicators of future presidential performance and serious idiocy.

A substantial campaign is most likely when history conspires to offer high stakes with stark choices or an incumbent seeks reelection (and it helps if the candidates avoid defining gaffes or temper tantrums). Re-election campaigns in particular are usually well-focused, because at least one nominee presents a defined track record.

The 2012 campaign seems primed to be portentous, with an embattled incumbent confronting an opponent from an ideologically-charged party amid economic turmoil. But every campaign, no matter how high-minded, flirts daily with farce. “Unfortunately, when you run for the presidency your wife’s hair or your hair or something else always becomes of major significance,” John F. Kennedy said, when Walter Cronkite asked about his forelock. “I don’t think it’s a great issue, though, in 1960.” Actually, the Kennedys’ good looks brought John Kennedy great political luck.

Hair has been the subject of political debate for Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, just as it was for John F. Kennedy, right.
Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, left; Associated PressHair has been the subject of political debate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, just as it was for John F. Kennedy, right.

The first substantial presidential campaign — which brought about America’s first transition from a ruling party to the opposition — also teetered between frivolity and philosophy. An ugly brawl between two founding fathers preceded the great deadlock of 1800, which you may remember hearing about during the election standoff in 2000. Federalists called Vice President Thomas Jefferson an atheist, a libertine, a traitor, “the infidel.” Democratic-Republicans called the short, fat pompous president, John Adams, “His Rotundity.” But the election also contrasted Adams’ centralized government championing industrial development against Jefferson’s vision of limited government with limited growth.

The 1800 election was the first to show how presidential re-election campaigns crystallize issues and polarize positions. A challenger need not be as doctrinaire as Barry Goldwater to offer “a choice not an echo,” when pitting boundless hopes against a first-term president’s adjustments to reality. Running for re-election in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt admitted there would be only one issue: “It’s myself, and people must either be for me or against me.” Running a referendum on Roosevelt, the Republican candidate, Alfred M. Landon, called himself “the direct antithesis of the present executive.”

Winners beware, though. The binary choice most American elections offer frequently overstates differences and oversimplifies results, especially when presidents win re-election. Most of the twentieth-century’s most lopsided wins kept incumbents like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in power, but frequently helped spawn the dreaded second-term curse.

Campaigns fluctuate between profound policy exchanges and trivial personality clashes, between significant indicators of future presidential performance and serious idiocy.

Even landslides do not offer the political equivalent of a blank check, however much it might feel that way. Roosevelt overstepped during his second term, especially when he tried packing the Supreme Court. He wrongly interpreted his 523-8 electoral-vote triumph as a more sweeping mandate for his New Deal than voters intended. Lyndon Johnson went from feeling, “for the first time in all my life,” truly “loved by the American people,” marveling at “millions upon millions of people, each one marking my name on their ballot, each one wanting me as their president,” to being hounded out of office.

Sometimes campaigns turn serious by coinciding with serious trouble, especially impending wars, ongoing hostilities or economic busts. Voters in 1860, in choosing Abraham Lincoln, knew that they were empowering abolitionists and risking war. Four years later, a worried President Lincoln needed battlefield victories to woo voters who were doubting him and his war. Ultimately, bullets swayed the ballots as General William T. Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta two months before Election Day helped vindicate Lincoln’s war strategy, leading to his re-election.

While wartime campaigns often become votes of confidence — or no confidence — regarding the incumbent, the downswing in an American business cycle often yields an upswing in surprisingly theoretical, intensely polemical, debates about American capitalism. During a recession, suddenly everyone is an economics major — or a philosopher.  The Panic of 1893 triggered 1896’s “Battle of the Standards.” Americans escalated arcane questions about valuing paper money, silver coins and gold into a searing philosophical divide that stirred fears of civil war. The major parties nominated candidates with contrasting stands. Converting from currency to morality, William McKinley, the Republican goldbug, said “The American people hold the financial honor of our country as sacred as our flag.” And catapulting from economics to metaphysics, William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic-Populist silverbug defending “the producing masses of this nation and the world” famously cried: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” One Republican, John Hay, moaned: “The whole country has been set to talking about coinage — a matter utterly unfit for public discussion.”

Still, good intentions and clear visions do not guarantee Solomonic deliberations. In 1964, insisting that “I’m not one of those baby-kissing, hand-shaking, blintz-eating candidates,” Senator Barry Goldwater envisioned a “lofty, rational presentation of contending beliefs” against President Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater loved his campaign slogan:  “In your heart, you know he’s right.” But with Democrats sneering “In your guts, you know he’s nuts,” and his numbers tanking, Goldwater retaliated. By October he was snarling “Would you buy a used car from Lyndon?” and saying all Johnson did was “lie and lie and lie” — although the patriotic senator recoiled when crowds, riled by his rhetoric, booed the president. Time magazine deemed the 1964 campaign “one of the most disappointing ever.”

Just as ideologues can end up mudslinging, moderates do not necessarily sling mush. Mocking moderates is a great American tradition. Some, like Lewis Cass, the Democrats’ compromise nominee in 1848, earn the contempt. As Americans polarized over slavery, Cass ran as a “doughface,” a Northern man who molded his politics to satisfy Southerners, impressing few, alienating many. “And he who still for Cass can be,” one Whig wrote, “he is a Cass without the C.”

America also enjoys a rich tradition of muscular moderates. Barack Obama has already shown he can run an exciting, crisp campaign from the center. In 2008, both parties nominated centrist senators seeking the swing voters who could sway the election. These crucial voters, like the Reagan Democrats and the Clinton soccer moms before them, made a clear choice, this time for Obama. Interestingly, even though both Obama and John McCain played to the center, they clashed on foreign affairs, economic policy and governing philosophy, and in the process they offered voters two quite distinct alternatives.

President Barack Obama, left, was accused of being an atheist, as was Thomas Jefferson, right.
Pool photo by Kevin Dietsch, left; United Press International, right President Barack Obama, left, was accused of being an atheist, as was Thomas Jefferson, right.

The history of presidential campaigning reveals the ingredients that yield substantial campaigns, including a charged historical context, clashing world views and coherent candidacies.  Still, every candidate remains one slip of the tongue, one gotcha question, one feeding frenzy, away from the chaos that overwhelms so many campaigns. Americans genuinely yearn for an ideal democratic exercise, one-part university seminar, one-part town hall. Yet the blood rushes, the pulse quickens, interest peaks, when campaigning turns ugly, emotional, personal. The contradictions of popular politics, meaning mass democratic decision-making, don’t just mirror but magnify our all-too-human contradictions as personal decision-makers.



Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, New York Times, 11-6-11

There we go again. After nonstop headlines a year before Election Day and nine debates between the Republican candidates (number 10 is scheduled to take place on Wednesday in Michigan), Americans are already grumbling that the 2012 presidential campaign is ugly and interminable. But these quadrennial complaints about campaigning miss the point.  Presidential campaigns are nasty, long and expensive because they should be. Many aspects of campaigns that Americans hate reflect democratic ideals we love.

The presidential campaign’s length and fury are proportional to the electorate’s size and the presidency’s importance.  A new president should undergo a rigorous, countrywide, marathon job interview. Citizens need time to scrutinize the candidates. As David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s senior strategist, puts it: “Campaigns are like an MRI for the soul, whoever you are eventually people find out.” Already this year, “easy favorites” like Tim Pawlenty fizzled, while Rick Perry learned that years governing Texas do not provide as much political seasoning as weeks of presidential campaigning. Mitt Romney, his aides admit, worked out his campaigning “kinks” in 2008.  That year, Sarah Palin’s popularity waned while Barack Obama’s soared, the more each campaigned.

These nationwide courting rituals should be long enough to let great politicians flourish and bond with the nation. John F. Kennedy became a better president and person by encountering Appalachian poverty during the 1960 West Virginia Democratic primary. During his 18,009 mile, 600-speech campaign in 1896, the Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan insisted that voters “have a right to know where I stand on public questions.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s strategist advised his candidate in 1932 in strikingly modern terms: “You are you,” he said, and “have the faculty of making friends on a campaign tour.” Traditionally, candidates repeated stump speeches so frequently that, as Herbert Hoover noted, “paragraphs could be polished up, epigrams used again and again, and eloquence invented by repeated tryouts.”

A campaign is the defining democratic exercise for a country founded on the consent of the governed. Since the Jacksonian Democratic revolution against elitism in the 1820s, each revolution democratizing American life further popularized the campaign.  Democracy trumped dignity; mass politics required mass appeals that frequently became protracted, vulgar brawls.

Like automotive crash tests, nasty campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability.

Popular candidates stopped being passive kings-to-be, becoming active, articulate, prime-ministers-in-formation, introducing themselves to the people, who wanted to vet their leaders. Most Americans still yearned for George Washington’s dignified silence, even as they cheered candidates engaging in what Hubert Humphrey would later call “armpit politics,” intense and intimate.  In 1840, William Henry Harrison explained that “appearing among my fellow citizens” was the “only way to disprove” rivals’ libels that he was a “caged simpleton.” Similarly, in 1948, a century later, President Harry Truman traveled to California to give the locals a chance to examine him in person. “I had better come out and let you look at me to see whether I am the kind of fellow they say I am,” he said.

Like automotive crash tests, nasty campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability. George H.W. Bush deflected ridicule in 1988 as a “wimp,” a “weenie” and “every woman’s first husband,” by mudslinging. “Two things voters have to know about you,” his aide Roger Ailes advised. “You can take a punch and you can throw a punch.”

Alternatively, a well-placed blow can pulverize a vulnerable candidacy. Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, a ferociously partisan Democrat, twice devastated Republican contender Thomas Dewey. First, in 1940, Ickes said the 38-year-old New Yorker had “thrown his diaper into the ring.” Ickes was also popularly credited with suggesting four years later that the dapper, mustachioed Dewey looked “like the groom on the wedding cake.” Both barbs stuck, crystallizing concerns about Dewey.

Voters oversimplify, viewing presidential campaigns as presidential dress rehearsals. After Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, the defeated Vice President Dan Quayle predicted:  “If he runs the country as well as he ran the campaign, we’ll be all right.” Actually, campaigns are auditions for certain aspects of the job. Although the contrast between Barack Obama as candidate and as president suggests that great campaigners do not always make great presidents, every great president must now be a great campaigner first.

Campaign budgets reflect the time candidates require to capture attention across America’s continental expanse. Candidates compete against the din of modern life, not just against each other. Considering that Procter & Gamble spent $8.7 billion in 2008 peddling detergents and razors, spending $4.3 billion for the 2008 campaign appears a reasonable price to pay for democracy.

The time and money invested pay off because campaigns matter. The stakes in elections are high, the outcomes often in doubt. Despite frequently feeling powerless in modern America, voters can make history. The George W. Bush-Al Gore deadlock in 2000 reminded Americans that in close elections, old-fashioned civics teachers were proved right: every vote counts. When Truman upset Dewey in 1948, the St. Louis Star-Times saluted unpredictability as an “essential part of freedom.”

Ronald Reagan used his four presidential runs in 1968, 1976, 1980 and 1984 to become a better candidate – and the Great Communicator. He relished voters’ sweaty handshakes, sloppy kisses, hearty backslaps and soaring hopes, explaining simply, “I happen to like people.”  Reagan instinctively understood the Progressive philosopher John Dewey’s teaching that “democracy begins in conversation.”  That conversation can turn ridiculous, raucous or tedious, but it serves as both safety valve and social salve. Presidential campaigns historically have had happy endings, with America’s leader legitimized by the open, rollicking process.

So, yes, campaigns are excessive, part old-fashioned carnival and part modern reality show. But in these extraordinary, extended democratic conversations, a country of more than 300 million citizens chooses a leader peacefully, popularly and surprisingly efficiently. As Reagan told Iowans during his costly, nasty, lengthy – but successful – 1984 campaign, “It’s a good idea – and it’s the American way.”



Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition, just released by Facts on File of Infobase Publishing.

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