Sunday, October 21, 2007

Nominating candidates

When the young Republican Party met in Chicago for its national convention in 1860, its leading candidates were William H. Seward of New York , Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, and Salmon P. Chase of Ohio--men whose national reputation had made them many friends and enemies. The Democratic Party was already hopelessly split, and the right candidate had an excellent chance of winning the election. Seward was the early leader in the balloting, but the convention slowly turned to a lesser-known Illinois Republican, Abraham Lincoln, a veteran of one term in Congress in the mid-1840s who had lost a close Senate election to Stephen Douglass just two years before (although actually winning the popular vote.) Party bosses realized that a lesser known candidate could more easily be packaged for the American people, and Lincoln became the "Rail Splitter" during the next few months and won perhaps the most important election in American history. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Democrats in 1932 also had bright prospects, and a round of primaries (a longer round, actually, than Kennedy and his rivals had to face in 1960), produced three candidates: Governor Franklin Roosevelt of New York, his predecessor and defeated 1928 candidate Alfred E. Smith, and Texas Congressman John Namce Garner. To protect white supremacy the South still insisted upon a 2/3 majority for the nominee, and Roosevelt, the front-runner, could not intially achieve it. But newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst brokered a deal, and Garner became FDR's Vice President--perhaps the first time, actually, that a major contender for the nomination had accepted the second spot. The ticket swept the country.

This year Hillary Clinton (now also from New York!) is the Seward of the campaign, the heir presumptive. Because of her family connections, eight years in the White House, and strategic location in New York, she had already locked up any of the most important contributors, I was very reliably informed by two Democratic luminaries, eighteen months ago. Like the Republican James G. Blaine in 1884, she is the emotional favorite of important segments of her party, but she carries tremendous baggage. She is denying that, as a fine Washington Post story explains this morning, by pointing to her impressive re-election throughout New York State, including the upstate Republican area, last year.

The point of the story is that that victory is being massively overrated by Clinton and her supporters. She had only slightly more Republican opposition than Joe Lieberman did in Connecticut--she ran against the former Mayor of Yonkers. And yes, she carried upstate, but she ran behind Governor Eliot Spitzer statewide, and well behind Charles Schumer in 2004. The story also includes evidence that she might suffer the fate of another New Yorker, Al Smith, in 1928--Smith had been elected Governor at least four times, but many of his fellow New Yorkers did not regard him as Presidential timber, and he lost the state in the Presidential election. I would certainly expect Clinton to carry New York next year, but I think her margin would be much lower, and as the story suggests, carrying western New York state does not mean that she could carry Ohio.

One hundred years ago it is at least possible that at the Democratic Convention the major rivals of such a controversial candidate--including John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson--might have come together to make a deal. They would unite behind one of their number--and I would nominate Obama, a midwesterner with unique assets and, apparently, few vulnerabilities. In return Richardson would be promised the State Department (where he would be outstanding) and Edwards would get Health and Human Services with a mandate to design national health insurance. Ms. Clinton could be offered the Attorney Generalship, which she would probably decline.

The country and the Democratic Party would both be far better off, I think, if those three candidates struck such a deal now, before someone (probably Clinton) has won a few critical primaries, been annointed as the winner, and put an end to any drama. The country would also be better off if Democratic opponents and the press leaked stories about former President Clinton's love life now (I am told several such are circulating), rather than wait for the Republican nominee to use them to swing the general election. Yet even now, with the Republican Party more than half way to destroying the America in which we all grew up and risking disaster all over the world, there is no sign that such a deal could take place. Perhaps this is the real dynamic behind the decline of great parties and great nations: after several decades of success, they become too pre-occupied with internecine warfare to think about their enemies in the outside world. Our nominating system, too, has become too expensive and rigid to respond quickly to the party's or country's needs. But one must not yet despair; much can happen between now and November 2008.

Don't miss yesterday's post, below.


Nur-al-Cubicle said...

I hope they strike a deal soon. The "Not Another Clinton" bumper stickers are out, presaging the division you mentioned in an earlier post.

Christopher said...

Dear David Kaiser:

Any man with Dostoevsky's Demons among his favorite books can't be all bad. You sound damn near all good, and your piece on Bill Kristol, which I cited yesterday on my Open Source site, is a big contribution. See mine at

As a radio talk guy these last few years, I find myself with an endless appetite for historians, historians, historians. It's what my producer Mary McGrath and I have come to call the Samuel Eliot Morrison or Henry Steel Commager "gap." But I begin to think maybe you fill it.

In any event I want to thank and admire you for your magnificent site, and to hope that we find a connection. I am a fellow this year at Brown University's Watson Institute, so we're not so far away if you'd be willing to get together some time.

My email is: chrislydonsir@gmail.

All good wishes,

Chris Lydon