Thursday, January 29, 2004

The Past Presidents Game

What I'm denoting as the "past presidents game" is the comparison of our current president to past presidents in order to learn something about the course of events. Of course, people compare President Bush to all sorts of bizarre historical figures, but lets restrict the field to past presidents for a little respectability.

My entry into the game: Bush is Polk.
  • Democrat James K. Polk won the election of 1840 by a tiny margin when a strong showing by the Liberty party siphoned off just enough votes to cost Whig challenger Henry Clay both New York state and the election. Republican George W. Bush won his election by a razor thin margin over Democratic challenger Al Gore in a key battleground state.

  • Polk, despite a tiny plurality of the popular vote, launched an expansionist foreign policy that almost got America into another war with Great Britain and did entangle America in a controversial war with Mexico. Bush and his war on terror has produced friction with Europe and entangled America in a deeply controversial war with and occupation of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

  • The Whig party presidential nomination for the election of 1844 was initially split between long-serving ultra-Whig Senator Henry Clay and the newly popular party outsider General Zachary Taylor. The Democratic nomination for 2004 is similarly split in part between long-serving liberal Senator John Kerry and the energetic and unorthodox Governor Howard Dean.

  • The new media of 1844, the penny press, probably seemed just as relentlessly hostile to the Whigs as the new media "dittoheads" of 2004 seem to the Democrats.

  • Conservatives view Bush as the ideological successor to President Ronald Reagan just as Democrats viewed Polk as an ideological successor to President Andrew Jackson. Jackson and Reagan where also the last two presidents who didn't die in office to be succeeded by their vice presidents, but only after an interlude by the opposing party.
Whether this comparison between the old Whig party and the modern Democratic party has any predictive power is open to question. The Whig party did win the election of 1844 after all, but it was all but defunct within 10 years. The two major 20th century political parties, on the other hand, have taken titanic beatings over and over again only to keep coming back for more. If the Republican party could survive taking the blame for the Great Depression, Watergate, and terrible defeats at the hands of FDR, Truman and LBJ, a 21st century Democratic party can probably survive anything. On the other hand, once the consensus view of the members of a political party becomes "electability at all costs", it can't be long before different party stalwarts start to disagree upon exactly how high the costs are going to become. It also wasn't just the Whig party's principles, or lack therof, that doomed them to perpetual failure. The public's perception of the Whigs as the party of stuffed-shirt old fuddy-duddy's also contributed to those failures.


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