The Polk Precedent

Printer Friendly
Short URL:  http://goo.gl/IBhwgB


Same day headlines offering divergent interpretations of a single poll underscore the tension latent in an American body politic asked to “hurry up and wait” when their president has opted to indulge his inner “bear” instead of governing from the Oval Office. As noted previously, the president’s second term began to go off the rails within months of the second inaugural, but, unfortunately, the unending stream of fiascoes has prompted a number of commentators to lament the public still has two more years to endure before a new president can be inaugurated. The recently authorized House lawsuit is ungainly, but the invocation of “high crimes and misdemeanors” only leaves impeachment as yet another “nuclear option” to be exercised as a last resort. As American commentator Gene Healy recently noted, the prerogative to remove a president exists but it is hardly convenient. Reagan and Clinton showed a second term can be salvaged; George W. Bush showed it cannot. Obama appears to have all but checked out. Future presidents may do well to place their egos in check, recognize their limitations, and emulate the one-term presidency of under-appreciated James Knox Polk.
Second Term Blues Back to the Founding
Second terms have been notoriously problematic.
The Founding Fathers were not immune. Washington was denounced as the “stepfather of his country”, Jefferson misfired with his economic embargo, and Madison presided over the disastrous War of 1812.
Scandals or panics marred the second terms of Grant, Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt. Wars upended the ambitions of Wilson and Lyndon Johnson.  
Franklin Roosevelt attempted to pack the Supreme Court, Eisenhower was caught off guard by Sputnik and U-2, and Nixon was caught harassing his political enemies. Reagan overreached in waging war against communism in Central America and attempting to free hostages in the Middle East; Clinton simply overreached when Monica Lewinsky walked in the Oval Office. Bush 43 foundered in the sands of Iraq and had to hastily bail out a banking system on the brink.
Rightly or wrong, one term presidencies are deemed failures. In regard to Bush 41, the verdict is harsh; in regard to Carter, the judgment is justified.
On the other hand, Polk exemplifies how much can be accomplished in the course of four short years.
A protégé of Andrew Jackson and the only Speaker of the House to become president, Polk was a dark horse when the Democratic Party nominated him 1844.  Seemingly outmatched compared to the esteemed and heavily favored Henry Clay, Polk won a narrow victory after the Whig Party divided over the question of slavery.
Polk is best known for acquiring California and the western United States in a war with Mexico as well as the Pacific Northwest via a diplomatic agreement with Great Britain. The acquisitions essentially concluded America’s westward expansion and secured its primacy on the continent. Less remembered are his steps to reduce the tariff and re-establish an independent treasury.
Nevertheless, the achievements were remarkable in the aggregate because, according to historians, Polk specifically named each as a goal to be accomplished in the space of four years.
Contemporary presidents name their goals too, but they are rarely as modest or attainable. Overcoming poverty or terror frame lofty ambitions, but they have defied presidential declarations of war. In short, present-day agendas are part grandstanding, part pandering.
More pointedly, forswearing a re-election bid focused Polk on achieving these goals as part of his own legacy, rather than accomplishments to be claimed by his successor. 

(Polk’s diligence is a welcome contrast to other presidents who rarely deliver on their named goals. As underperforming presidents conveniently aver, unfulfilled agendas argue not against their re-election, but in favor of it.)
They’re All Second Terms in the End
Polk’s successful acquisition of California and Oregon closed the matter of whether the United States would expand and focused subsequent political debate on whether future states would permit or prohibit slavery. Whether Polk would have won re-election had he run in 1848 is unknown.
The opposition Whig Party presidential candidate nominated General Zachary Taylor, who defeated the Democratic candidate, Michigan Senator Lewis Cass, in the 1848 election. A hero of the just concluded Mexican War, Taylor was a unifying figure just as the slavery debate was heating up, but he died in office sixteen months later.
Over the next ten years, the Whig Party never resolved its internal disputes over slavery and eventually gave way to the anti-slavery Republican Party. Nevertheless, thanks to Polk, future presidents did not have to contend with a belligerent Mexico or unresolved fiscal matters.
This little-recognized outcome denotes how the distinction between problematic second terms and the inevitable continuity between presidential terms constitute a missed opportunity.
All presidential terms are, in one shape or another, essentially second terms to the preceding term, even if the incumbent actively avoids emulating his predecessor.
Bush 41 and Clinton’s terms are linked by similar decisions to raise taxes and policies on how to deal with post-Soviet Russia.  Clinton’s second term and Bush 43’s first term are coupled by their (widely) varying response to jihadist terrorism. Bush 43’s second term and Obama’s first term are closely associated in that the military capabilities formulated under the former came to successful fruition and implementation during the latter.
If such linkages are inevitable, why not be more purposeful in shaping them?
Achieving Continuity and Change
The race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is wide open. The website RealClearPolitics currently lists eleven individuals currently polling more than 1 percent, ranging from seasoned former officeholders (Florida Governor Jeb Bush) to dark horse policy mavens (Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal) to iconoclastic newcomers (Kentucky Senator Rand Paul).
Each of the eleven would be capable standard-bearers and a number of them are formidable policy innovators in their own right. Unfortunately, if one wins the nomination and then the presidency, the die has been cast -- barring major catastrophe -- for the next eight years, of which the latter four might end up as yet another troubled second term.
Accordingly, why not forgo the re-election bid?
Ideally, the president would assiduously focus on identified priorities and then support the presidential bid of the sitting vice-president. In turn, the vice-president would now have four years experience and would benefit from quasi-incumbency.
Moreover, without the drag of an unsatisfactory second term, the potential for conservatives to hold the presidency through consecutive terms would increase. To keep the party engaged (and, equally important, attuned to emerging shifts within the base), the vice-president could allow his or her successor to be selected through the party’s nominating process.
Voluntarily forgoing a second term could strike the right balance between the conservative movement’s desires for continuity between administrations and the broader public’s appetite for change.
Such a decision need not be announced publicly at the outset. The option could be evaluated discreetly between the presidential nominee and his or her running mate and simply acted upon before the next election.
Revisiting the Bush 41 presidency from 1989 to 1993 is instructive.
If Bush had agreed in 1988 to let his vice-presidential nominee be selected through the party’s nominating process, would the result have been the relatively unknown Dan Quayle? Perhaps longtime conservative favorite Jack Kemp would have received the nomination in 1988.  In turn, perhaps the party’s nominating process might have selected General Colin Powell in 1992, as many Republicans had desired at the time.
In the end, Kemp-Powell is a much more formidable ticket than Bush-Quayle. By stepping down, Bush would have defused the Democratic Party’s call for change, as well as the rationale for Ross Perot’s independent run. Moreover, Kemp was a Reaganesque optimist and a stalwart proponent of conservative economic reforms. Powell could have overseen the rightsizing of the military after the Cold War’s end.
Lastly, if Kemp forgoes re-election, then a Vice-President Powell might have been the next Republican nominee.  While many conservatives would have objected to a Powell presidency, he would have been very well positioned to secure the nomination as an incumbent vice-president and anti-Powell conservatives would have had recourse via the nominating process to select his running mate.
In the end, the period between 1992 and 2000 might have been very different. The Roaring Nineties would have occurred under Republican administrations and the scandals and neglect of national security that marred the second Clinton term might have been avoided. Nor would Hillary Clinton be poised for another credible run at the White House. Nor would have an egotistical amateur been deemed a credible presidential contender if the color barrier had already been broken.
A Choice, Not An Ego
Acknowledged, expecting an individual to forgo the historic opportunity to serve a second term is unrealistic. The healthy ego required to run for president is probably beyond restraint once another four years becomes a prospect.
Nonetheless, James Knox Polk demonstrated what is possible and if the reformist Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is genuinely committed to reversing the unending metastasizing of the federal government and the scope of the presidency (as well as averting the corruption inherent in believing one is indispensable), then would be contenders should seriously consider stepping down after four years.
Which headline would be preferable in 2024:
“Voters Opt for Change After Two Term Tea Party Hangover”
“Voters Elect Third Consecutive Tea Partier to the Presidency”
Bush’s second term discredited neo-conservative foreign policies. Obama’s second term has undermined progressive domestic policies.
Are reformers prepared to risk the legitimacy of libertarian conservatism for one individual’s re-election ambitions?