Thursday, June 14, 2012
I've been reading a biography of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, and the first one to come from what today might be referred to as "outside the Beltway." Viewed by both himself and the general public as a man of the people, Jackson had never been part of the Washington elite, the political class that saw themselves as the logical heirs of Washington, Jefferson, et al.
Jackson's life was interesting, but what's intriguing me at the moment is seeing just how little is actually new in contemporary politics. You think this year's presidential campaign is turning nasty? That it was unfair of an Obama supporter to comment that Ann Romney had never worked? Every so often some pundit will call for a return to the past civility of presidential politics. Obviously, those pundits don't read history.
Back in 1828, Jackson's opponents came right out and called his deceased mother a whore who had slept with black men and sold a son into slavery. They slandered his wife, Rachel, so viciously the stress may have triggered a heart attack and caused her death -- Jackson certainly blamed his opponents, such as Henry Clay, for hounding Rachel into an early grave. Compared to early 19th century politics, we're playing the game remarkably cleanly these days.
Similarly, almost every election cycle, several suggestions for reform pop up. The two most common are direct election of the president (i.e., eliminate the electoral college and the apportionment of votes by state; make it a simple nation-wide popular vote) and change the presidential term to a single six-year stint in office instead of the current four year. You know who first proposed those reforms? Andrew Jackson in his first annual address to Congress. Today, the rationale for the latter is that it would eliminate the President's spending most of his or her first term trying to get re-elected to a second. Jackson's reasoning was that by making the presidency a single term it would eliminate the possibility of a President turning into a despot. Although the first six presidents (and as would Jackson himself) had stepped down after a second term, he had visions of a potential despot being elected who would run for repeated terms and be removed from office only by death.*
Of course, Jackson's rationale could have just as easily been that it would eliminate the perpetual campaigning. He had first run for President in 1824. Following his defeat, he immediately began building support for a second try in 1828 -- and when he arrived in Washington in January 1829, he and his supporters at once began plotting and maneuvering in preparation for the 1832 election.
There is indeed nothing new under the sun.
[*It took FDR's doing exactly that -- election to 4 consecutive terms and then death in office -- to inspire Congress to pass the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1947; it limits the presidency to two terms and was ratified by the required number of states in 1951.]