Friday, March 30, 2007

Convention Politics -- When it Meant Something

"I don't expect Senator Harding to be nominated on the first, second, or third ballot, but I think about 11 minutes after two o'clock on Friday morning of the convention, when 15 or 20 men, bleary-eyed and perspiring profusely from the heat, are sitting around a table some one of them will say, 'Who will we nominate?' At that decisive time the friends of Senator Harding can suggest him."

Campaign manager Harry Daugherty's words were prophetic; that is almost how it happened. I will be the first to admit that Warren G. Harding is not the best example of the argument I am proposing in this and the previous article, but it is an excellent example of the process that hammered out the best for the party and the people in the years following the civil war. This process was dying by the mid-20th century, and has now been replaced by the boring, expensive, and ineffective system of primaries that, like sheep, all states have adopted.

It might sound un-American to suggest it, but "majority rules" has never been the best way to select a leader. One reason is that the majority changes its mind so often. Riding the wave of Desert Storm I, George H.W. Bush saw his approval rating soar to record heights. Most Democrats of presidential caliber saw Bush as unbeatable in 1990 and decided not to expend the obscene amounts of money and energy that are necessary for a slalom through the primaries, and opted out. This left room for second best, and an obscure former governor of Arkansas decided to at least get his name on the ballot. By the time Bush's numbers were plummeting, it was too late for anyone else to stop the Clinton express. He won on the unpopularity of a man who had had an 80% approval rating less than two years earlier. In 1972, Nixon came close to sweeping all states in the presidential election. In 1974, he wouldn't have been able to win any of them, possibly. Majority does not always work. The framers of the constitution knew this. While allowing for popular election of congressmen, they did not provide for that in the Senate or the Presidency. Senators were chosen by state legislators, and the president, by electors. Ideally, both groups listened to their state constituents, but they knew that they had been put in their positions because they also knew how to choose.

It's not un-American to designate others to make the crucial decisions for us. That's still what's supposed to happen with "representatives." Over the years, we have cheapened the other ideas that the Framers of the Constitution set in mind. The Senate is now just a long-play compacted version -- a "CD" of the noisy house of representatives. They are selected the same way, they campaign the same way, and they end up, sadly, working the same way. It was not supposed to be that way. That's why only the Senate is entrusted with the crucial issues of politics, such as the approval of cabinet nominees and supreme court justices, the making of treaties, and the ultimate removal of unelected -- and elected -- officials. The electoral college is not just a system "in code" that helps us find out, in a shortcut manner, who won the presidency. Both of these roles were determined to assert the supremacy of the states -- over national parties and politics -- to get things rolling.

Whether you like him or not, Woodrow Wilson stands as an influential president, the first one to assert American involvement in foreign affairs (at least not covertly). If there had been primaries, Wilson would not have been our president. When you consider that he was probably not the best for the job at the time (Teddy Roosevelt, angered by Taft's "conservative" policies, ran as an independent and managed to siphon enough of Taft's votes to give Wilson the victory), but he was probably the best his party had to offer. In the Democratic convention of 1912, he began as a minor player. William Jennings Bryan was the heart and soul of the Democratic party, but the minister and attorney (of future Scopes trial fame) had lost the national elections before, and settled into the postion of "conscience" of the party, as many also-ran candidates have tried to do since in both parties. He wanted Wilson or Champ Clark, a Missourian who was the speaker of the house. Tammany Hall, the corrupt wing of the Democratic party, favored a northern conservative from Ohio, Judson Harmon -- possibly, but not certainly, because they felt he could be the most easily controlled. Most southern conservatives wanted Oscar Underwood of Alabama. The Progressive Democrats were divided between Wilson and Champ Clark, and if he had only had a long, torturous string of primaries, he could have already been the nominee instead of having to go through the smoke-filled hall.

Bryan probably could have given more support to Wilson, but the latter had written a private letter, made public (like today), that expressed a desire to see Bryan toppled from his pedestal in the Democratic party. Wilson, a highly educated man, was also a master of wit and did not hold back on his criticisms before he formally entered politics. Because he did not have Bryan's support, the first ballot ended with 440-1/2 votes for Clark, 324 for Wilson, 148 for the Golden Boy of Tammany Hall, Harmon, and 117-1/2 for Underwood. There was some wrangling and behind-the scenes action, and it appears that some deals were made. Suddenly, on the tenth ballot, Tammany Hall caused Harmon to throw his support to Clark, and with 556 votes, Clark needed only 170 more to go over the top. Wilson was ready to concede, but Bryan decided that he could swallow his pride and ignore Wilson's insult -- it would be worth it to stop Tammany Hall. Before the 14th ballot, Bryan endorsed Woodrow Wilson. Did that seal it? No, it took 14 more votes, Wilson gaining steadily in each one, and on the 28th ballot he finally took the lead, which he would never relinquish. On the 45th ballot, he had 633 votes, which broke the back of most of the opposition. Bryan's candidate carried the 46th ballot with 990 votes.

I must add that America didn't really want a Democratic president at the time. However, because the popular Teddy Roosevelt was poised to split the Republican party, any Democrat would have won, with the possible exception of Underwood. Wilson was the best possible candidate for the party that would win. It was as close as Tammany Hall would ever come to invading the White House, and with their money and influence, they would have done so with primaries in every state. I don't think it would have been President Clark; it would have been President Harmon and a VP hand-picked by the bosses of Tammany Hall.

By the way, the Republicans finished third overall in popular and electoral votes. Roosevelt's Bull Moose party came in second. It is interesting to notice some of the progressive planks of Roosevelt, signals of the changing political scene:

  • Direct election of senators (which we have now, of course)
  • Easier amendment of the Constitution (an erosion of states' power, actually)
  • Graduated inheritance and income taxes
  • A system of "social security" (yes, that...)
  • National health insurance!
  • Primaries for all state and national offices

--So it was already the "beginning of the end." Our nation was being moved away from Jefferson's model of a federation of sovereign states with peer rule, to the aristocratic model of John Adams, who believed that the federal government knew better than the states what we should do. It is a paradox that continues to this day: as the "power of the majority, the rule of democracy" is exalted, the actual power of people of conscience to influence the course of our nation is diminishing.

--And it's why, no matter who wins in 2008, our next president will not be the best person we could have had. Our next president won't even be in the top 10. And we will have to live with it. We need the smoke-filled convention hall again.

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