U.S. Presidency II: Choosing Mediocre Presidents
– Chapter 2, “Choosing Presidents,” of Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced, by Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg.
We are the mediocre presidents.
You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!
There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler,
There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes.
There’s William Henry Harrison,
(I died in thirty days!)
We… are… the…
Caretaker presidents of the U-S-A! (source: The Simpsons
Decision outcomes are determined not only by a final vote, but by the process of selecting the alternatives among which we choose. The Framers of the Constitution did not provide for a means of selecting presidential candidates, so “extra-constitutional” methods were developed out of necessity. As those methods changed, they favored different types of candidates, resulting in different types of presidents. In the mid 1800s, this resulted in a series of “executives who seemed to grow progressively more obscure.”
The Importance of Alternative-Selection Processes
The Framers of the Constitution did a poor job in structuring the process of presidential selection. It’s well-known that they bungled the electoral process. Failing to foresee presidential and vice-presidential candidates running as a slate, they gave each elector two votes (inadvertently setting up the tie between Jefferson and Burr, and the resultant 36 ballot fiasco in the House in the 1800 election) a procedural defect corrected by the 12th Amendment. But it is less well known that they bungled—or rather, failed to provide at all for—the process for selecting candidate. They may have thought that the electors would act as a de facto nominating convention for House selection, since in the absence of any candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes the House would select from among the top five. Certainly there were those in the convention who criticized this mode, and a proposal to allow a plurality of electors of greater than 1/3 to be sufficient for the presidency was rejected. And they may have assumed that—post Washington, the obvious choice for first president—electors would mostly choose eminent men from their own state (hence the requirement that one of their votes be for someone not from their state).
But the selection of nominees for the electors to consider turned out to be more contentious than they had apparently expected. If electors could have voted only for someone from their own state, it might have remained merely a state-level issue, but because one of their votes had to be for someone from a state other than their own national-level candidate selection quickly became an important issue.
Political scientists (and allied economists) now know the importance of determining how alternatives for final selection are themselves selected. If the final selection is to be made only from alternatives that are on the table, then what alternatives are actually on the table is of critical importance, and how alternatives get onto the table or are kept off is a crucial question. In a nutshell, if I can control the selection of alternatives, I can control the outcome while allowing you to make the final choice. Initially, the only alternatives on the table were heroes of the revolutionary era, and for electors it was just a matter of choosing among them. But what happened when that generation’s pool was tapped out?
King Caucus and the Hobbling of the President
The first three presidents were strong men of great ambition, but their ambition had not originally been directed toward gaining the presidency, since the office did not exist when they came to prominence. It was their ambition that led to their distinction that led to their becoming president, and it was the combination of their ambition, distinction, and the inchoate functioning of the new political system that enabled them to be strong presidents. They owed their position to no particular definable group, so they were free to be their own men as president.
But Thomas Jefferson inadvertently kicked off the next stage in presidential selection—while we were still in the Revolutionary heroes era—by creating the groundwork for the first true American political party. His Democratic-Republican party did not select him, but was created to provide electoral organization to support his presidential bid. But after Jefferson, the party did find itself in the position of having to choose a candidate to field against the candidate the Federalists selected—and the Federalists had to choose a candidate to field against the Democratic-Republicans–and the effective power to do so was co-opted by both parties’ members in Congress, resulting in the congressional nominating caucus.
The caucus system did not last long, little more than a generation, because it never achieved a sense of democratic legitimacy (“King caucus” was a derisive term criticizing the congressional stranglehold on candidate nomination.) But while it lasted it shaped the type of presidents by determining which potential candidates ultimately got their names on the list from which the actual presidential electors could choose.
Caucus-selected presidents were now beholden to their party’s power players in Congress, and unable to act aggressively in the absence of congressional consent. Whereas Jefferson had resisted congressional pressure to take Florida by force of arms, Madison found himself maneuvered into the War of 1812 against his better judgment, in part because his renomination depended on his party in Congress, which favored the war. Presidents couldn’t even exert effective control over their own branch, because their cabinet members’ real constituency was the congressmembers who they hoped would favor them as the party’s next presidential candidate. Madison’s successor, James Monroe, fully realizing how he as a member of Madison’s cabinet had focused on cultivating Congress, used his own cabinet members as a conduit for building congressional support for his administration, an implicit recognition of his dependence on Congress.
The Convention System
The failure of the caucus system to establish a sense of democratic legitimacy helped pave the way for the party convention system. This probably was a political inevitability. The caucus worked as long as parties were not fully organized as bottom-to-top political organizations because they filled a political vacuum. But once the parties became more fully established, state party activists naturally sought a role in the candidate selection process. Once again this led to the selection of weak presidents, but through a different mechanism than the caucus system.
Whereas the caucus system led to Presidents Madison and Monroe being beholden to congressmembers for their selection (and in their first terms, for their re-selection), the convention system produced candidates who were the least offensive to the various factions within the party. Any highly ambitious person who has aggressively put themselves forth in politics, and who has strong positions on the issues, has alienated someone, so any politically prominent would-be candidate found themselves opposed by a significant portion of the caucus. This was especially true for the Democrats, who—to keep their regional divisions from splitting the party apart—required a supermajority of 2/3 of the convention delegates to achieve the nomination. The candidate selection process put a premium on political inoffensiveness, which in practice meant political invisibility.
This claim may seem questionable, given that Andrew Jackson and James Polk stand out as exceptions to a field of presidents that include Fillmore, Tyler, Van Buren, Buchanan…names that generally fill in the bottom tier in lists of presidential greatness. But each, in his own way, demonstrates the accuracy of the argument. The party convention system was essentially constructed by Van Buren for the purpose of helping war hero Jackson win the presidency, after he was robbed of it—in his view—in 1824. The convention system freed Jackson from any electoral debt to Congress, but did so before the different party factions figured out how to use the convention to effectively press their own interests. Or perhaps his war hero status over-rode those interests. At any rate, he benefited from being the first candidate of the convention system, the one for whom the system was initially constructed, before the system took on a life of its own independent of the control of any candidate.
Polk is, by some measures, the most successful president ever, adding half of Mexico to the union through war, resolving the disputed northern border with Canada through negotiation, and creating an independent Treasury, all in a single term. But Polk could do this in large part only because he had pre-committed to a single term, knowing that such aggressive actions would alienate various party factions. And of course he was the classic dark horse candidate, someone who, although not an unknown, had seen his political star fade; who did not expect to be the nominee and was not even on the first ballot, but was suddenly selected as a non-objectionable candidate on the 9th ballot. Basic statistics show us that if you make enough essentially random selections you will get an occasional outlier—the real product of the system is shown by its normal product, not its unusual one.
Notably, in this era publicly putting oneself forth for the presidency, actually campaigning for the office, was sufficient grounds for being denied the opportunity. Serious candidates frequently dared not even appear at the convention until after they had been selected. In this way, the most driven candidates, those who most strongly self-selected and engaged in a pitched battle for the office, were the ones least likely to attain it. The process, far more than today’s process, tended to weed them out and select men of comparative mildness, of comparatively moderate political ambition.
The Civil War and Beyond
The chapter we’ve used for our text here focuses solely on the antebellum era. But the post-bellum era was not significantly different. Other than the war hero Grant, the convention system gave us such luminaries as Hayes, Arthur and Cleveland. The type of presidents we get does not really begin to change until we get to McKinley, whom some classify as the first of the modern presidents. But there is a long period of unsteady transition in the late 19th and early 20th century, as we get not only a McKinley and a Teddy Roosevelt—strong active presidents—but a Harding and a Coolidge, men who would not have been out of place as presidents decades prior.
One might be tempted to point to Lincoln as another argument against the type, but imagine Lincoln without the Civil War. What is there in his history to suggest he would have been anything more than another Buchanan? His politics were quite mild; he preferred to continue “the American System” of Henry Clay, using tariffs to promote internal development and infant domestic industry, and opposed slavery but pledged not to move against it. It’s not that he was a man without talent—he undoubtedly proved that wrong—but that in the absence of southern secession he would not have had any call to employ those talents, and doing so in any lesser of a crisis could have resulted in his legacy being that of yet one more one-term president.
Other than Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, historians’ lists of great presidents always have a distinct 20th century bias. This is not solely because of a bias toward the contemporary—it is because the size of the office has grown, and the type of men who occupy that office has changed. And they have changed in large part because the process for selecting candidates has changed—men of little ambition no longer need apply; only those of intense personal ambition have any hope of making it through the candidate selection process.
We’ll come back to that in a future class session. But first we’ll look at what the office is like today, and how it came to take its current shape. The first step in that, next week, will be to look at how the presidency was conceptually re-conceived from an office that took its lead from Congress to one that would lead Congress, a fundamental reorganization of America’s conception of its political system.