Being Right Rather Than President

President's Day provides an always welcome opportunity to look back on American presidential history. While the holiday is a legacy of celebrating the births of Presidents Washington and Lincoln, its expansion to encompass a celebration of all presidents, great and small, is more fitting. The remarkable ones, like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan, always shine, whether it is for their leadership, rhetoric, steadfastness in crisis, or vision for America. Those presidents less remarkable are routinely referenced as footnotes, but still there are grounds for recalling their terms. James Knox Polk, America's first successful "dark-horse" candidate, was a political heir to Andrew Jackson, and successfully guided the United States through a war with Mexico and expansion to the Pacific Ocean. Chester A. Arthur, successor to another unheralded president, James A. Garfield, confounded everyone by championing civil service reform, a system of merit which prevails (for good or for bad) to this day. Even Warren Harding, who is identified as America's worst president, received the affection of millions when his body traveled the country back to Washington after his death while in office.

Equally intriguing are the stories of esteemed individuals who made bids for the White House and lost. Some defeats were outright repudiations, such as Alf Landon in 1936 and George McGovern in 1972. Some were unforgettably close, like Tilden in 1876 or Gore in 2000. Finally, there were those defeated candidates whose loss was undisputed but marked by unassailable dignity, so much so in one case it was remarked the loser had merited an "honorary degree" from the Electoral College. While the losing candidate, Adlai Stevenson, lost twice to the much more popular winner, Dwight Eisenhower, he was not alone in losing multiple times. William Jennings Bryan lost his bids three times, the first time in 1896, a rematch in 1900, and then again eight years later in 1908. Both men lost by sizable margins, but their messages continued to inspire, with Bryan and Stevenson signaling the rise of Progressivism and modern liberalism, respectively.

Another three-time loser was Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay earned his place in history as the "Great Compromiser" and one-third of the "Immortal Trio" (Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun were the other two), and he is probably the most qualified man who never became president. When asked why he would not adjust his position on slavery to improve his chances in the upcoming 1840 presidential election, Clay responded "I had rather be right than president." His subsequent effort to navigate the tricky shoals of slavery politics foundered, but Clay's statement remains a classic republican standard whereby a presidential contender is expected to stand with integrity no matter the electoral consequences.

However, after decades of cynicism and brutal partisan conflict, the impulse for integrity has diminished and Clay's standard appears elusive as ever. For all the questions presented to Sens. McCain, Obama, and Clinton over the past year, none has inquired what principle would each of them stand by no matter the cost to their presidential ambitions.

Sen. McCain will eagerly remind audiences he fought a lonely fight for the military surge in Iraq when no other major political figure, save a lame duck President Bush, wanted to persist with the venture. With the achievement of greater security in Iraq, McCain appears vindicated and his steadfast support of the effort has bolstered his already considerable reputation on national security affairs. For many supporters, McCain's stalwart commitment to Iraq is simply indicative of his authenticity. McCain posits his "Straight Talk Express" is the best vehicle for carrying the GOP to victory, but McCain must take care to make sure his eagerness to win does not undermine his reputation; his attacks on fellow Republican Mitt Romney, alleging he called for timetables in Iraq, were simply bogus.

Similar to McCain, Obama asserts his integrity was forged in the debate over the war, albeit from the other end. Obama enjoys needling Clinton by declaring noting how he consistently opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning -- "I opposed this war from the beginning. I opposed the war in 2002. I opposed the war in 2003. I opposed it in 2004 and 2005 and 2006." Building on this stance, Obama has fashioned an entire campaign on the mantra of generational change that only his earnestness can achieve. However sincere Obama's call for change is, he has been unable (or worse tactically unwilling) to discuss how he will challenge the orthodoxies of prevailing liberal or conservative politics. When attacked for inspirational speech-making lacking in policy details, Obama will denounce the critique as the attack politics of old. When called out for policy prescriptions that smack of old-style big-government liberalism, he responds the description is symptomatic of "broken politics." Obama will soon have to take a more definitive stand on his policy proposals -- potentially unpopular as many costly government programs are when fully explained. Should he capture the nomination, he will undoubtedly face a spirited challenge from McCain, who has already gone on record castigating his "disingenuousness."

Under Clay's standard, Clinton emerges as the worst -- she alone has demonstrated an unprecedented eagerness to be president rather than right. After sixteen years, there is little left when it comes to imagining the worst of Hillary Clinton, as she and her husband have repeatedly demonstrated the willingness to abandon principles and allies for political gain at the drop of a poll point. Having sunk her arrival on the national stage by helming the health care reform fiasco, she resurrected herself only after standing by her scoundrel of a cheating husband and alleged a "vast right-wing conspiracy" was the source of all their troubles. Then, once in the Senate, she locked arms with these same Republican conservatives on issues far afield from usual liberal priorities, ranging from flag burning to the war in Iraq. The Clintons espoused triangulation as the basis for a "third way" in politics, but in their execution, no interest is served except their own.

Happy President's Day -- may the most earnest candidate win.

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