Blogs > Cliopatria > Whigs and Democrats

Sep 15, 2008 8:00 pm

Whigs and Democrats

First, my apologies for being gone for so long. My life has been interesting since June—not “may you live in interesting times” interesting, but the number of dull moments have been few.

Now to work. I’m a Whig.

The realization hit me some years ago when I was in graduate school and read about JQ Adams’ first annual message to Congress. I was captivated by his trust in education, his desire for not only a national university but also a national observatory, and his vision of a national government that met the expressed needs of the people and yet attempted a long-range vision. My captivation startled me, as I was more used to thinking of Whigs as darlings of the plutocrats and religious bigots suspicious of anything Catholic. Still, when I got home I declared to my wife, “I’m a Whig.” Sue was understandably confused, as I am ordinarily the household populist. Even after I explained she remained dubious, and with reason. I still have my populist moments.

I don’t think about this aspect of my identity much, but the past three weeks of the election campaign has reminded me all too well of 1) my Whig-like tendencies and 2) the fate of Whig-like presidential candidates.

Barack Obama has vision. It is a serious vision and a good vision. That’s what captivated so many of my colleagues during the primaries. Personally, I was more dubious, inspired by his ideals and fearful of his inexperience. My first choice would have been John Edwards; happily Edwards quick and now utterly comprehensible withdrawal spared me and many others from a serious mistake. Still that left me with Obama and Hillary Clinton.

In the end I went with Obama in the Wisconsin Primary. It was a near thing; I truly did walk into the polling booth not knowing clearly who I would vote for. Part of the decision was based on Obama’s momentum at the time; part was on general admiration; most was based on the belief that he could change the tenor of politics. He convinced me that it was possible that politics could be a little less cut-throat and a little more concerned with the common good.

Over the next four months Hillary Clinton proved me and his many stronger supporters wrong. Good vision is not enough to win. It must be combined with a self-evident prowess. Like her or dislike her, Clinton showed what prowess combined with pocket-book liberalism could do against Obama. Like it or not, Obama never did respond with great effectiveness.

It is now John McCain’s challenge to show if prowess and conservatism can overmatch Obama’s ideals. McCain does not have much of a reputation as a visionary. In fact, his Maverick image has obscured—at least to the general public--his lack of direction. That is why many conservative Republicans don’t like him even though he clearly tilts more to the right than his opponent. His advantage is that his public persona usually seems pretty moderate, an image he seems to be maintaining despite his campaign's ugly baldfaced lies.

That image alone might not play well against Obama, whose image of thoughtfulness has reached farther outside educated circles than is common. Whether by luck or genius, McCain picked the perfect running mate: a pit bull governor whose personal life embodies the growth in opportunity for women even as her politics embodies a knee-jerk social conservatism.

Obama picked another Whig, Joe Biden. Biden has a reputation as a fighter among political cognoscenti, but the vast majority of Americans have never seen that side of him. For most he is at best a good man who could be a good president but who brings almost no spark to the campaign. In Rick Shenkman’s ideal world that would be enough, but in fact, it’s not, or at least it’s not enough when faced with Sarah Palin, the rare if not totally unique vice-presidential candidate who is getting more buzz than her running mate.

There is lots of time left to the campaign. Palin may well have skeletons in her igloo, and Obama has done much, much more than either Palin or McCain to make economics the issue. Today's economic news may help Obama in putting that back at the center of the debate. That can still be his winning ticket.

Still, I fear that Obama may continue to make the ultimate Whig mistake, which is assuming that being reasonable and being right is enough. It’s not. Americans want the sense that someone has the personality to fight and to lead as well as the sense of a good destination. If forced to choose, a majority will usually pick a strong leader going in a questionable direction over someone they perceive as weaker, even if they think he might know the right place to go.

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