• Gay BlogAds

  • Gay News Watch

  • Chris Tweets

  • « More Obama-Clinton on gay rights | Main | On the radio »

    May 02, 2008

    How does America get its great presidents?

    Posted by: Andoni

    Abrahamlincolnbw14 Does America get its great presidents because the voters have a good eye for choosing those who eventually become great? Or do we get great presidents because the well-oiled machines in our political parties offer up great candidates who then become great in office?

    I would argue that neither the voters nor the political parties deserve credit for our great presidents.
    We get our great presidents when the system is bypassed -- either because of extenuating circumstances or luck, but not when things are politics as usual.

    Our first great presidents, obviously, were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They ascended to the presidency mainly because they proved themselves during the founding of our country, so let's put them aside.

    Most historians agree that after that, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were great or near-great presidents. (I’m leaving out the last four presidents because not enough time has passed to evaluate their historical standing). As to the other four, I would argue that it was not the astuteness or brilliance of the American electorate or the good stewardship of the dominant political parties of the time that gave us these great leaders. It was really a matter of luck.

    In 1860, a majority of U.S. voters did not perceive Abraham Lincoln as the best person to lead the nation through the impending crisis. He was a relatively obscure candidate from a new party, the Republican Party. His competitors, Stephen Douglas of the Northern Democratic Party and John C. Breckenridge of the Southern Democratic Party, were established party favorites of the time. Luckily for Lincoln (and us), the Democratic Party split in two over slavery. Had that not happened, one of these two would have been elected. Douglas and Breckenridge were established party favorites from the same broken and deadlocked system that produced Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, Lincoln’s immediate predecessors and two of the worst ever according to most rankings.

    Lincoln was therefore not a product of the normal political system of that time. The Democratic Party split opened the door to an untested newcomer who otherwise never would have had a chance of becoming president. Lincoln actually received only 39.9% of the popular vote, which means that 60% of the country wanted someone else. The person most historians think is our greatest president won office only because of the anomaly of that 1860 election. He was elected by luck -- given the special circumstances of 1860 -- and certainly not because voters or the dominant parties recognized his potential.

    Follow the jump for more…

    Teddy Roosevelt is another example. Because he was a political novice and perceived troublemaker in the Republican Party, New York politicians gave him the VP slot as a dead-end way to get him out of New York. They did not see his potential greatness; they simply wanted him out of the way. He became president only because of William McKinley's assassination.

    Harry Truman is another relative unknown who never could have been elected on his own, becoming president only due to the death of Franklin Roosevelt. It wasn't the foresight of the American people or the Democratic Party. In fact, he was chosen in a very undemocratic manner. The one and only vote that mattered in his ascendence was from FDR, who personally chose Truman as his running mate, dumping his previous VP.

    Franklin Roosevelt is the final example of a great president elected not due to the wisdom of his party or any great insight by the electorate. Herbert Hoover's presideny was wrecked by the Great Depression in 1932. Hoover did all the wrong things, and made the crisis worse. The electorate wanted change and didn’t care who the Democratic nominee was; they simply wanted to throw the Republicans out. Any Democrat would have won in 1932.

    There were nine names put into nomination at the Democratic Convention in 1932, which deadlocked over a nominee. After many ballots over several days, Roosevelt was lucky to come out on top -- thanks to the maneuvering of Joseph P. Kennedy and William Randolph Hearst. Hearst got the governor of California to switch allegiances and support Roosevelt when he saw that one of his political enemies was otherwise end up with the nomination. Roosevelt was not the carefully selected choice of a wise party and won the general election almost by default.

    Not only do we Americans not have a good track record of choosing the presidents who eventually become great, we do not have a good track record of choosing good presidents generally. Under standard political operating procedure, we end up with a lot of poor presidents.

    Democracy may be the best form of government, but it doesn’t mean the electorate always makes wise choices, and in 2008 we really need a wise choice. In 2008 there are so many issues important for the country’s future: the Iraq War, health care, the economy, the environment, gay rights and the Supreme Court. In each of these areas I believe the Democrat (any Democrat) has a better solution than the Republican. However, with media focus on irrelevant sideshow issues, I’m not so sure that Obama or Clinton can win in November.

    Therefore, I hope for a “throw the bums out” tsunami in 2008 -- just like in 1932. So even though I personally will be hurt by a further economic downturn, I hope the economy continues to tank. Short of the electorate becoming furious, I fear that Karl Rove, all the Republican 527’s and the endless 30-second sound bites will inject enough fear into this election that the Republicans pull it off. I want the fear of economic uncertainty to trump the fear of Republican-generated divisiveness.

    If the economy is bad enough, voters will finally be able to see past guns, gays, God, race and pastors to vote on issues that are far more important for our country in the long run. If it’s a normal, run-of-the-mill American election, I simply don’t trust the voters to make the right choice.



    TrackBack URL for this entry:


    1. theGayEditor on May 3, 2008 10:36:02 AM:

      What a thought-provoking post and interesting topic. I had wondered why the electorate hasn't seemed to "get it right" in recent elections, but it's intriguing to know that we never have! Thanks for doing the research.

      In closing, I'd like to add one more "important issue" to your list: our international image and reputation. I'm also sad to say that I am wishing for your conclusion and the end result as well.

    1. Tim C on May 3, 2008 11:24:29 AM:

      Newton D. Baker, anyone?

    1. Strict Scrutiny on May 3, 2008 1:22:23 PM:

      and in 2008 we really need a wise choice. In 2008 there are so many issues important for the country’s future: the Iraq War, health care, the economy, the environment, gay rights and the Supreme Court. In each of these areas I believe the Democrat (any Democrat) has a better solution than the Republican.

      I couldn't agree more.

      However, with media focus on irrelevant sideshow issues, I’m not so sure that Obama or Clinton can win in November.

      I also fear this may be true. I have little faith in the American electorate -- I do not believe that most people really study the issues and make informed choices; they're more caught up with Reverand Wright, Hillary's cleavage, and flag pins. Laughable. The poll numbers just baffle me -- some 60-70% say that "America is on the wrong track," yet I continue to see polls saying that McCain beats either Democratic nominee. So, evidently, according to the electorate, more wrong track is what we need? Granted the "polls" these days are a mess, but still, I just don't get it.

      This election is for the Democrats to lose. I sincerely hope this does not happen.

    1. Tim C on May 3, 2008 5:57:25 PM:

      If you have a discussion with those who are driving those polls that say McCain can beat either Clinton or Obama, you find some interesting perceptions about the Democratic candidates. A lot of people genuinely don't trust Hillary. She makes them uneasy. They believe that she will say anything, take any position, if it can help her get elected. She believes it is her destiny to be President, and she will say or do what is necessary to make that happen. And her campaign's behavior reinforces that belief. Every statement they issue seems to be nuanced, cautious, vetted to make sure that no one with needed votes is offended. Remember how long it took the Clinton campaign to release a statement disagreeing with statements about gays in the military issued by then-JCS chairman Peter Pace? With Obama, it comes down with these folks to experience. He's in his first Senate term, having won that in a cakewalk over a crippled Republican Party in IL. Voting for him in November, if he's the candidate, will require an act of faith, regardless of what his plans are regarding this or that issue. Many people are not willing to make that act while selecting the Chief Magistrate. So you have McCain. He has loads of experience, he's generally been on the right side of things once the dust has cleared, most of his positions are very moderate and reasonable to most voters, and he has a reputation of calling a spade a spade which is attractive when stacked up against business as usual in Washington. If you're afraid of a replay of the political mechanizations of the last Clinton term and wish Obama were not so wet behind the ears, you come up with McCain.

    1. Geena The Transgirl on May 3, 2008 9:13:53 PM:

      America has great presidents because it is a country of great opportunity, where individuals can step forth and present their vision of government to the electorate. A worthy president trusts his message and has no fear of the sound bite.

      On a tanking economy -
      I see no political advantage when a single mother has less in her grocery cart, the businessman must cut his payroll, or the investor can no longer fund a technology startup. If a candidate can not be elected in good times or bad, they lack the ability to keep America moving forward absent the motivation of crisis.

      The American people are capable of making wise choices, we are not a people who cower in fear waiting for a man or women to come forward telling us to be brave.

    1. Kevin on May 4, 2008 6:20:49 PM:

      Interesting ideas, but ultimately there is no formula. Kennedy and Reagan were more products of the times than products of a party or irritants thereof. And I think it's fair to call them both great presidents as well.

    1. Double T on May 5, 2008 1:02:53 PM:

      Yes, I know, it's a cliche'

      America gets the politicians they deserve.

    The comments to this entry are closed.

    © Citizen Crain - All Rights Reserved | Design by E.Webscapes Design Studio | Powered by: TypePad