Though it is distressing to be enduring such a dismal election campaign, it is not unprecedented. As both parties prepare to spend a billion dollars either reelecting a president most Americans do not think deserves to be reelected, or a challenger most of his fellow Republicans don’t think can win (and as in most things, the public may well be right on both counts), it is easy to find the whole process discouraging.
The liberal national media took dead aim at Mitt Romney when he emerged from the debacle of the 2008 McCain campaign as this year’s front-runner. Their great achievement has not been the serial assassinations of the non-Mitts, who were sitting ducks — Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich — but rather the deterrence of the people who could have generated real enthusiasm and might have been stronger candidates than Romney: Jeb Bush, Daniels, Ryan, Rubio, Christie, and Barbour.
And their second great achievement has been responding to the meteoric rise of Newt Gingrich like Nike Zeus missiles, getting from the ground to 60,000 feet in three heartbeats. If Newt had lasted another month and won a couple of primaries before imploding, he might, as I suggested here at the time, have deadlocked the convention and enabled Republican regional leaders to get behind one of the non-candidates. But they hung the $1.6 million of history lessons at Fannie Mae around Newt’s neck with such efficacy, they made the Ancient Mariner’s albatross look like an inspiriting scapular medal.
As a bonus, Newt, who professed to be surprised by the negative comments on some of the less salubrious aspects of his career, replied, joined by Governor Perry as he ramped up to his 1 percent finish in New Hampshire, by attacking Romney’s business record. Asset-stripping and the reconfiguration and relaunch of companies isn’t industrialism and job-creation like building Microsoft, but it is part of legitimate corporate rationalization, produced strong gains for Romney’s investors, and is a more estimable career than that of most politicians. Obama would have made the same points, but Newt’s gibbering will make excellent fodder for the president’s reelection ads against Romney, and an unseemly swan song for Gingrich’s active political career (unless he wants to be the Harold Stassen of the new millennium).
Gail Collins of the New York Times is a lively writer and usually the first musket to flame from the undergrowth at each new blip of a Republican non-Mitt in the polls. She referred to the continuing non-Mitts last week as candidates who “could not be elected president if they were running against Millard Fillmore.” In writing this, she mistakenly implied that she thought Romney could defeat President Fillmore; that Fillmore was a markedly more unsuccessful president than Barack Obama; that she might civilly describe more impressive Republicans; and that Fillmore had ever been elected president or had even been a major-party nominee to that office.
Millard Fillmore, a former congressman from western New York State, was elected vice president as the running mate of Gen. Zachary Taylor in 1848. It was one of only two presidential victories for the Whig party among 13 Democratic victories between Jefferson in 1800 and Buchanan in 1856. By 1848, the American house was so divided on the slavery issue that both parties chose nominees to national office who had ambiguous views on the question, like 1990s nominees to the Supreme Court who had no paper trail on abortion. Victorious commanders from the jokey wars of the time (William H. Harrison, Taylor, Lewis Cass, Franklin Pierce, Winfield Scott, John C. Frémont) and dissembling political roués (Martin Van Buren, James K. Polk, Fillmore, William R. King, Buchanan) were favored. More substantial figures such as Henry Clay and Stephen A. Douglas could not hold together a coalition of supporters and opponents of slavery. From the retirement of Andrew Jackson in 1837 to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in 1861, the only successful president was the astute, slippery, and colorless former Speaker and America’s first “dark horse,” Polk, who won the Mexican War (adding a million square miles to U.S. territory), settled the northwest frontier with the British and Canadians, and stabilized treasury and tariff matters.
Fillmore helped pass the Compromise of 1850 worked up by Clay, Douglas, and Daniel Webster, and sent Commodore Perry to open the ports of Japan. It was a defensible record that may well bear comparison with Obama’s, given that this president at the end of this term will have added about $2,000 of debt for every man, woman, and child in the country, in order to wrestle unemployment back to where he found it, while partially disarming America unilaterally and possibly welcoming Iran into the nuclear club. (On past form, Ms. Collins would be just as scathing of the Republicans if the contestants for the nomination were Lincoln, TR, Ike, and Reagan.)