December 6, 2011
To My Fellow Citizens:
We have noted in these letters that the modern presidential campaign has become a long, long job interview, which favors applicants who are good at running for president but not necessarily those who are good at being president. A vetting process that favors those who are good at electoral politics over those who are merely good at governance is obviously detrimental to America’s republican experiment. Serious as that problem is, it seems to me that the danger to constitutional government from modern presidential politics goes even deeper.
We are about to observe the 100th anniversary of the presidential campaign of 1912. That campaign stands as a key dividing line in American political history. Former president Theodore Roosevelt’s electrifying campaign in 1912 as the nominee of the Progressive Party signaled the dawn of a new political era—the one we still live in. To get an idea how momentous was the change wrought in the 1912 campaign, it suffices to reflect that, in decisive respects, that campaign had a lot more in common with the 2008 presidential election than it did with the election of 1908.
The core difference is that before 1912, presidential campaigns were conducted more by political parties than by individual candidates appealing directly to voters, and following a successful campaign, the president governed more as head of a party, as well.
Teddy Roosevelt lost the 1912 election, and the Progressive Party never again really mattered, but its spirit—its Caesarian impatience with the mediating institutions of political parties and constitutional checks and balances—came to define the political framework America lives in to this day.
It is not simply, then, that we have different kinds of candidates than we did before 1912, but that they are running for a different kind of presidency. TR urged Americans in 1912 to regard the president as “the steward of the public welfare.” This Caesarian conception of the presidency will not hesitate for a moment to ride roughshod over the impediments of constitutional government limited to securing the natural rights of the governed.
President William Howard Taft finished third behind TR and the 1912 Democratic nominee, Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey. Taft, as a result, has the unfortunate distinction of being the only American president to run for reelection and not receive even the silver medal for coming in second. (He has the happier distinction of being the only president also to serve as the U.S. Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, thereby heading two of the three constitutional branches in the course of a public career.) Taft’s defeat was not just a personal rebuke but a setback for the cause of preserving, as he put it, “all the checks and balances of a well-adjusted democratic, constitutional, representative government.” One hundred years later, the Tea Party’s exertions argue that this cause is not defunct, while the Tea Party’s grave challenges argue that the restoration of a constitutional order that has been ceding ground for a century will be, at best, an arduous endeavor.
It would be helpful, in that work, to have presidents who secured and held office with the circumspection that comes with being a guardian of the constitutional order, rather than the imperiousness that suits the “steward of the public welfare.” One of the consequences of 1912, however, is that the former kind of politician is less likely today to seek and win the presidency, and the latter is more so.
As late as 1952, Dwight Eisenhower could “announce” his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination with a single sentence in a letter that was made public while he was serving as NATO commander in Paris. After stipulating that “under no circumstances” would he seek a political nomination, Ike wrote, “Of course, there is no question of the right of American citizens to organize in pursuit of their common convictions.” That opaque truism was all it took to send the signal: Eisenhower would run for president if the Republicans drafted him as their nominee. The next year he took the oath of office.
It is impossible to imagine any presidential aspirant today even feigning such reticence. It is quite telling that while politicians in the 19th century were said to “stand” for public office, the accurate formulation favored since early in the 20th century is that they “run” for office. Every four years they run farther and faster.
The rules of the game now require those who seek the presidency to: raise tens of millions of dollars in increments limited by law; spend the better part of two years giving speeches, shaking hands, and participating in debates and town hall meetings; and subject every detail of their personal and financial lives to inhuman scrutiny. Little wonder that such a process attracts campaigners with Caesarian ambitions and the “arts of popularity” more than “characters preeminent for ability and virtue,” as the Founders had hoped.
If we are not happy with that political process and its results – and we shouldn’t be – we need to change them. It won’t be easy or quick, but it will be worth the effort—to ensure that the White House is not occupied by a Caesar but by a President who understands that he is filling a constitutional office that works within and respects “all the checks and balances of a well-adjusted democratic, constitutional, representative government.”