Sunday, December 30, 2007

The making of presidents

Finally the long run up to the selection of 2008 Presidential nominees moves to the decision phase on Thursday. It surely feels like time.

As it happens I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a gripping work of popular biography. This isn't history that seeks to uncover the social and economic forces that drive human actions and societies; rather Goodwin writes out of the "great men" school of historical narrative, focusing on the inclinations and foibles of people near the center of power. Politicians make engaging characters in this kind of story, none more so than the complex and appealing Lincoln. The result is fascinating, though not deep.

It is interesting to think about the current campaign season in the light of Goodwin's description of how Lincoln won the Republican nomination and then the election of 1860.
  • Realignment: I subscribe to the idea that contemporary demographic trends favor a long term shift toward a progressive majority. But 1860 was unequivocally the real thing, real realignment. The pre-existing political parties were splitting and reforming under the party names we know today, all over the issues of the federal union and of slavery. The old Whig party literally disappeared. Four men representing fragmentary and regional parties vied for the Presidency. Lincoln's northern Republicans, committed to preventing the spread of slavery to the territories but not abolition, commanded a plurality of votes, though nothing like a national majority. Pushed to the sidelines by "serious" politicians, even in Lincoln's party, abolitionists (and the slaves themselves) accused the "respectable" men of politics of moral turpitude. That sure reminds me of progressive forces today.
  • Nomination by smart blurring: Lincoln won the Republican nomination, not by overwhelming his rivals, but by making himself a majority's second choice while more prominent leaders knocked each other out. His political operatives flattered and cajoled to line up second ballot commitments. They took advantage of the convention's location in Lincoln's home state of Illinois to pack the galleries with his supporters, in part by counterfeiting entrance tickets. (Done that myself once. The effect was awesome and shocking to our opponents.) When "the rail splitter" won the nod, many members of his own party had no idea what the undistinguished one term Congressman stood for. I suspect all current candidates would love to be able to run from such an undefined position.
  • A candidacy evading definition: Lincoln did not go out on the campaign trail once nominated. He stayed in Springfield, Illinois, letting politicians and journalists come to him, quizzing visitors on developments in their home states, and writing an endless stream of letters. Other Republicans traveled about the country speaking for him. In that time of frightening turmoil, with the South on the verge of breaking up the country in order to keep its slave economy, voters easily came to believe that this little known man stood for whatever it was that they hoped for -- and Lincoln was careful not to disabuse them of their confidence. Again, our contemporary candidates do their best to run that sort of campaign, letting voters pour their hopes into vaguely defined vessels.
  • Swift-boating, 1860 style: Because Lincoln used his lack of sharp definition to such good effect in attracting northern voters, he was very subject to being defined by his enemies, especially in the South where the Republican had no campaign. (Hard to imagine isn't it? -- the Republicans as the party of progress, of opposition to slavery, shut out of the South.) Democrats in the South successfully portrayed the unknown candidate as a sort of rampaging Yankee werewolf, a threat to their civilization, their women and their property. Goodwin remarks that the Northern Republicans were literally unaware of what a threatening figure Lincoln's enemies had defined him as in the South and so were taken by surprise at the quick break with the federal Union with which the deep South greeted his election.
  • An unknown in office: for all the sound and fury of the 1860 campaign, voters didn't know who they were getting until the man was tested by events. We don't either, though we think we do after the exhaustive and mostly simply exhausting tedium of a campaign. George W turned out to be much worse than even his opponents expected; could any of the Dems we are now offered turn out better than seems likely? We don't know.
Not that I imagine it will matter by February 8 when California holds its primary, but I will almost certainly be voting for the unknown quantity named John Edwards when the time comes. It feels extremely odd, but like every serious progressive I know, I find myself going with the Southern white guy instead of the woman or the Black guy. Edwards' populism seems marginally the best of an unsatisfactory lot, so there's my lesser evil choice for this round.

Chris Bowers writing at Open Left catches my relationship to our Democratic choices very succinctly:

... even if Edwards is just pandering, praise friggin' Jeebus that we finally scored a conversion with such a prominent Democrat. Isn't that exactly what we have been trying to do with Democrats? If progressive activists aren't happy that one of the six people who still has a shot at being our next President caved to our pressure on a wide swath of both policy and rhetoric, then what was the point of engaging in all of that activist pressure in the first place?

1 comment:

Jane R said...

VERY interesting. Thanks -- I always appreciate your book reviews. Happy New Year!