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.)
Loser takes all
The point is we are back to unimpressive candidates waging campaigns that duck the main issues. Obama is cranking up to inflict a class war on the country, with the assistance of the egregious huckster Warren Buffett, Omaha’s most overworked aphorist and noisiest municipal export since the B-29. The prospect is too much even for William Daley, outgoing White House chief of staff and scion of a family that has brought political chicanery and skullduggery in Chicago to the verge of immaculate corruption.
Of course there have been other candidate droughts in the past. Most contestants for national office between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were estimable Civil War generals who were unambitious, prudent presidents who let America be America. Immigrants poured into the United States, commerce boomed, and what was already the world’s largest national economy put up staggering rates of GDP and productivity growth (i.e., a rate of about 8.5 percent economic growth in the 1880s). Innovative and imaginative presidents need not have applied, and didn’t.
Despite the recent attempts to glamorize Calvin Coolidge (largely by the same people who have propagated the fraud that FDR exacerbated the Depression), the Twenties can be seen as a time of inadequate leadership, though Herbert Hoover and his 1928 opponent, four-term New York governor Alfred E. Smith, were outstanding men in very different ways.
Having defeated Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to bring America into the world and make it safe for democracy, and, through Prohibition, having handed one of America’s largest industries (alcoholic beverages) to the underworld, the Republicans allowed the growth of such a gigantic speculative bubble, especially in equity values, that when the bust came, a system that did not guarantee bank deposits and had no direct relief for the unemployed could not withstand it.
And in foreign affairs, the great vision of international organizations and collective security having been dismissively rejected, much was made of mindless naval disarmament (that greatly advantaged our subsequent enemies) and the harebrained Kellogg-Briand Pact that purported to outlaw war. Then as now, the reward for such vapid posturing was the Nobel Peace Prize, and Frank Kellogg’s was as dubiously earned as have been those given to Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and Barack Obama. In foreign as in domestic matters, the price of poor and evasively procrastinating government proved to be desperately steep when the reckoning came.
Folly in the face of declinism
So will it be again. It looks like Barack Obama and Mitt Romney: an incumbent who has the country hemorrhaging debt that has all the characteristics of massive money-supply increases versus an opponent whose plan to improve the economy is 59 clichés. Romney ran four years ago as someone who famously repeated, “I love data.” The data are simple and they are grim.
America, though still the world’s greatest country, is in decline and retreat. Some of that may be prudent retrenchment, but it is overcommitted to the fraud of the service-industry economy that adds no value, and so conventional economic recovery won’t be enough. America has shot the spending bolt for inducing traditional economic recovery. And the administration is shrinking defense spending, the best form of economic stimulus, instead of reforming entitlements. It is chasing votes with a tawdry fable of redistribution. And the presumptive challenger came late and half-heartedly to tax simplification and is dancing around entitlement reform like a flame-seeking moth, without alighting on it.
Public education is in shambles; medical care is a feast for two-thirds and a famine for the rest. American lawyers are a steroid-bloated cartel and criminal justice is presided over by a judiciary that has been preening itself while the Bill of Rights has been shredded by the prosecutocracy. The financial industry is in a pale of disgrace as profound and richly deserved as the contempt almost uniformly attached to the political class. Everyone believes in the Constitution, but it isn’t working very well and none of the candidates is seriously addressing these points.
Mitt Romney would be among the most improbable saviors any important country ever sent for. But he may now be all that stands in the way of an accelerating descent into nether regions. Certainly, the United States will revive and go on to great things. But while awaiting the gladsome day of that relaunch, it may be advisable to defy the national media’s ostentatious atheism and recognize the truth of the last czar’s last prime minister that “it is time to pray.” Voting seems not to be working.
Bio: Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.