Handicapping the 2016 Presidential Election Part Two

As promised yesterday, I've had a lie down and some tea, and am now ready to return to an absurdly premature gaming of the 2016 presidential election in the United States. The logical thing to do seems to be to stick to my list of possible contenders, and up today is the category 'partisan hacks', both redeemed and unreformed.

There are obvious candidates, from the beginning of the republic, who fall into this classification; people who were characterised by shady party manoeuvres, ambition, and organisation, rather than any consistent line or initial charisma, and funnily enough they're not all lawyers. The historical bookends would be George Clinton and John Kerry, I guess, and in between we could place the likes of Aaron Burr, Millard Fillmore, Rutherford Hayes, Stephen Douglas, Samuel Tilden, James Blaine, John Nance Garner, Alf Landon, Hubert Humphrey and Gerald Ford, inter alia (I've left out the running mates to cut things down). Some of these people, like Humphrey and Douglas, actually meant well and redeemed themselves in their campaign or afterward; some were simply consumers of time and occupiers of space, as the initial ignobel prize described J. Danforth Quayle. I have, by the way, left out Henry Clay, who properly belongs in since he broke himself on a rock of whiggery during the 'corrupt bargain' controversy, but I have a soft spot for the Son of Kentucky and, well, it's my blog and I can be inconsistent if I want to. There isn't really a category for Clay. Perhaps 'reputational victim of that bastard Jackson' comes close, but who'd give out rewards for that?

It isn't necessarily a given that the means by which such people advanced reflected any inner pettiness, though it often did. It's just that they rose by party and elective office, and cleaved to it for most of their time. I suppose that I define redemption by their turning against that line, as Douglas did from Kansas-Nebraska in 1860, or Humphrey almost did over Vietnam. So it shouldn't be too surprising to the reader that the outstanding hacks are actually two who would never be acknowledged as hacks these days; Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

Lincoln, remember, was a one-term Congressman of no real fixed abode who rose by saying different things in different debates around Illinois in 1858, Rocky style. His opponent was more famous and better qualified, and Lincoln himself was very close to being a shill for corporate railroads and a sort of capitalist puppet . He was supremely able to convey the wrong impression to as many people as possible, and contrary to myth did not start off as a principled opponent of slavery. He once speculated with Frederick Douglass to his face, for instance (whilst Lincoln was president), that black and white people would be better off if Blacks went off somewhere else.

Lincoln rose because he was in fact the second choice of party hacks in a new organisation many of whom had emerged from the Whig party, to which Abe had been as loyal as a doughface. He was neither as suspicious a figure as Fremont, the pathfinder of the West and the first Republican nominee, nor as daft as William Henry Seward (though he panted for power, as far as we can tell, in the same way).

What Lincoln had the great sense and talent to do was to create an historical nobility for himself through private diaries and what might be termed the unsaid written hope; whether in the future he anticipated such words being published or letters divulged is another matter. Perhaps, at some unconscious level, he meant for them to call him to the better angel of his nature knowing that he was more likely to give in to temptation.

Lincoln thus moved over the enormous body count and blood of the Civil War, to be his own fictional creation. All through that time, he was Schrodinger's electron-president. One could never know in which direction he was moving if one knew his speed, and one would never know his speed if his direction was obvious. Put your policy in his box, and, well, it wouldn't be clear if it was alive or dead until Lincoln unlocked it.

There's so much evidence for this proposition it's almost not worth bothering. I know that a few eyebrows will have been raised however, so how about the first inaugural address? The shenanigans at the 1860 convention? The National Union bait-and switch in 1864, or the qualified nature of the Emancipation proclamation, Lincoln's words on reconstruction and actions in Louisiana, or his thoughts on votes for 'intelligent' black people and soldiers?

What saves Lincoln from the norm is the way his soul, or something he discovered about holding together an industrial nation in the throes of modernisation, grew out from all of this. Allan Guelzo's now old book, Redeemer President dates me a little, I guess, but really, I thought at the time that it was misnamed. It was Lincoln who, properly speaking was redeemed by his office. He came to define it, as Churchill perhaps defines the myth of the British Premiership, so long as one squints and ignores the reality. The reality is of a flawed hack who became greater than anyone around him, and not necessarily because of some moment of epiphany. Lincoln is everyman redeemed.

This is why all the weird stories of Lincoln's ghost haunting the White House right up to Reagan's time are so sweet, much more than any tale of, say, a mournful Garfield staring in the window or Kennedy splashing in the press room. Even after death, Lincoln can't, like a good hack, quit knocking on doors.

If Lincoln is the best of the redeemed hacks, I suppose FDR is the equivalent for the plain hacks. Let's be honest about him, he would have said and did say anything to get elected. Hoover was right; FDR was a chameleon on plaid, and not just when he told campaign aides to knit fundamentally different speeches together. In Pittsburgh, in October 1932, he was for cutting taxes and putting the government on a diet; in San Francisco, he was for expanding government. In Chicago he was for neither and in office he was for both. FDR was wave-function duality on a particularly annoying bandwidth, and a good many problems which showed up in the future can be traced directly to him.

Al Smith, for whom I have a lot of time, grew exasperated with his former protege for just this sort of behaviour. Smith was even more appalled when Roosevelt created a vast bureaucracy, stole gold, switched from a financier-backed aristocrat to some sort of Tribune of the people, and then started inveigling America into a war. He wasn't alone. There is a reason that Roosevelt is the only president against whom a constitutional amendment was specifically written, even though he was dead, but I suppose what saved him was the union of his supporters' desperation with the sheer force of his detractors' demented hatred. At least Huey Long said what he was going to do.

As time passes memories fade and achievements remain. The very best sort of hack is the one who can do what hacks do--seize the moment--but then go beyond it, to some locked away, hidden place where their humanity rests. You hope for better, but expect the usual. You can imagine this working, I've always argued with a man unfairly caricatured as a boob and treated as such, Thomas Marshall. He was Wilson's V-P. Marshall is nowadays remembered for the crack about the country needing a good five-cent cigar, but had Wilson's stroke been fatal, a plausible case can be made that Marshall would have sunk expertly to the challenge of getting the Versailles Treaty through Congress. He'd have schmoozed Republican Senators whom Wilson alienated, stayed out of Paris, followed what Colonel House said, and compromised. The whole history of the twentieth century could have been different had one hack been more engaged; I suppose the German equivalent is the beer-swilling Stressemann, who died too soon and let in Hitler. Inter Alia.

So, who are the hacks to add to our list for 2016? I'm saving the Bushes for the criminals category, so that leaves a predictably wide field.  By its nature, politics is designed for such types--anyone who has read Federalist 10 or 51 knows that this is especially true of the American Republic.

How about Emanuel, Gillibrand, O'Malley, Dean and Biden on the Democratic side; Paul, Ayotte, Pence, Rubio and Haley, to name a few, for the Republicans? I like Biden and know good people who've worked for O'Malley, personally, but North-eastern or Atlantic machine Catholics these days are probably only going to make it to number one Observatory Circle, mouldering in the official veep residence whilst waiting for the phone from the Parkland Hospital or the White House Recording Studio to ring, or working on plans for paperclip reduction.

Perhaps the women stand out. It's surprising how many competent specifically female hacks there are out there since one of the characteristics of the whole breed of hacks in general used to be their cheerful and not necessarily understated tendency to mess stuff up. Putting a pole up at the end of the red carpet and letting a vice-presidential nominee walk into it is as old as George Clinton (Alben Barkley would have charmed it, John Garner pee on it, Joe Biden chat to it and Dick Cheney shoot someone from the top of it like a kind of murderous, snarling Simeon Stylites).

Susana Martinez and Nikki Haley are in fact very able executives, and even Kelly Ayotte can't be imagined walking into as many two-by-fours as Sarah Palin. Then again (Cf. Meenagh passim) Sarah Palin was overpromoted and underprepared in 2008. As Governor of Alaska, she wasn't Palin, but actually quite good. These women would actually complement a ticket properly, and so, should be in our mix.

So that's part two. Now, onto two separate blogs; Religious People and Nutters, and of course, a perennial favourite--Criminals with Seniority.


Paul S. said…
Hello Martin,
What can I say, your analysis of US politics is always a delight to read!
I hope all is well across the pond. A new batch of STAC students have arrived at Merton college and I wonder if any will have snagged a spot in your class. I still fondly remember my time there.
Paul Schumann
Martin Meenagh said…
Hi Paul. No STAC students this year I'm afraid but a great gang all the same. Thanks for your comment, and am glad that all seems well with you.