R.W. Bradford, the founder of this journal, was an acute political analyst, thoroughly familiar with American history and American life in all its forms. I’ve read a lot of professional commentators on American politics, but Bill Bradford’s chance observations showed more knowledge and intuition than 90% of the commentators show in a lifetime.
Every four years I recur to something Bill said to me one day, almost by chance. He said that there have been two types of presidential candidates: (A) those who had a perennial constituency — in Bill’s words, those “who always had a lot of people who wanted them to be president” — and (B) those who didn’t, those whom “nobody ever wanted to run.”
Crowds of people loved them, honored them, backed them in every attempt at the highest office.
It wasn’t a difference between people with good ideas and people with bad ones, although Bill said that he’d always had a weakness for the old maxim that “the job should seek the man,” not the other way around. The difference had to do with the psychology of the candidates and of their willing or unwilling supporters. Because of that difference, there might also be a difference in the candidates’ campaigns and their performance in office, if they managed to get into office.
I think there’s a good deal of truth in Bill’s idea. I think it provides an interesting perspective on how things work. And I think it’s sadly appropriate to what we see this year.
Think about it. Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Stephen Douglas, Ulysses S. Grant, William Jennings Bryan, Robert LaFollette, Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, Ronald Reagan . . . Crowds of people loved them, honored them, backed them in every attempt at the highest office. These people cheered their victories, mourned their defeats, and convinced themselves that the defeats were victories. Such followers enhance their favorites’ stature. More importantly, they enhance the candidates’ experience of their country and their countrymen. They give them a connection, if they want to use it, to real knowledge of America. And most of those favorites did use that connection.
Now think of Franklin Pierce, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, the two George Bushes, Barack Obama . . . No constituency ever spontaneously decided that these men were inspiring figures, and therefore insisted that they run for office. When they ran, it was because of their own insensate and insatiable ambition (Wilson, Nixon, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama), or because they thought it was somehow an appropriate thing to do (Taft), or because a deadlocked party invigorated a lurking idea that yes, maybe they could make it (Pierce, Harding), or because of some reason I cannot fathom (the Bushes).
Who clamored for Ted Cruz to run for president? What irresistible mob of supporters demanded that Marco Rubio take the field?
In each group, A and B, there are people whom I happen to like or admire, and there are people whom I happen to dislike or despise, usually because of their political philosophy. And there are people whose group assignment we can debate. But it would be hard to say that the Group B folk had the personal stature of the Group A folk, or their connection with the American experience. People in the second group have been candidates of themselves and some political coterie; their experience hasn’t needed to be broader, and sometimes it has been remarkably narrow. Those among them who have been motivated merely by their ambition, or the ambition of their friends and family, have tended to be either twisted souls or kids perpetually too late for the party.
The alarming thing about 2016, from this perspective, is the absence of any candidates from Group A.
Who clamored for Ted Cruz to run for president? What irresistible mob of supporters demanded that Marco Rubio take the field? John Kasich — the subject of what adoration? Jeb Bush — the cynosure of what eyes? None, of course, except those of the Chamber of Commerce and the diaspora of former Bush political employees.
I guess it goes without saying that nobody ever wanted Hillary Clinton to be president, and nobody wants it now. What her supporters desire is somebody who will favor their chosen policies, make the appointments they want to the Supreme Court, give them government grants and favors, employ them (or their relatives) and give them wealth and power. If Krazy Kat had figured out a way to collect gigantic bribes without overtly violating a law, and therefore had a ton of money to throw around, those people would be cheering for Krazy Kat. Who, come to think of it, would be a much better choice than Hillary Clinton, who is zanier than any comic strip character, though without the fun.
Ah, but Donald Trump and Bernard Sanders, what of them?
This is not a puzzling question. Think back to a year or two ago. Do you remember anybody ever saying, “There’s just one person I want to be president, and that’s the senator from Vermont”? No, you don’t. Sanders was and is a nonentity. It was the prospect of Mrs. Clinton’s coronation that made him a public hero. Any other plausible receptacle for leftist nonsense would have done as well, or better.
Of Donald Trump, we may ask a similar question, and find much the same answer. He wasn’t a nonentity, but no broad masses (to use the Marxist phrase) ever begged him to run for public office. He just got up one morning and decided to do it. So he has become the plausible receptacle for most of the justifiable or unjustifiable anti-establishment sentiment in the country. The fact that he has certain curious skills, skills that have made him more successful than Sanders in the political arena, doesn’t mean that anyone ever wanted him to be president.
I guess it goes without saying that nobody ever wanted Hillary Clinton to be president, and nobody wants it now.
I don’t know what Bill Bradford would say about this, but when I look at the major-party presidential contests of this republic, if we can keep it, I find very few examples of a year in which both candidates were in Group B. One example is the Harding-Cox election of 1920. Another is the melancholy contest of 1976 between Gerald Ford (nice guy, but an accidental president) and Jimmy Carter (distinctly not a nice guy, or a guy with any known constituency or capacity for office — a man elected to the seat of Washington by the fact that he was a Southern Democrat).
There have been other contests of B vs. B. But the current election is spectacular for the prominence of two inmates of Group B who are obnoxiously assertive personalities. To paraphrase the words of an advertising man who helped to elect Richard Nixon, “They wake up in the morning with their suits all rumpled and start running around shouting, ‘I want to be president! I want to be president!’”
One of these Type B people will win. The voter’s job is to decide which one is less weird and dangerous. This isn’t Harding vs. Cox. Both were capable men, and the victor, Harding, turned out to be a good president. (Forget the adverse propaganda; read the great book on the subject, Robert Ferrell’s The Strange Deaths of President Harding.) This time, the chances are much greater of getting a president devoted wholly to his or her self-generated ambitions.
Yes, in a republic, private ambition can sometimes benefit the public. Sometimes.