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Morning Jay: 2012 – The Thrilla in Manila?

6:00 AM, Feb 16, 2011 • By JAY COST
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For all of its complexities, American politics is sometimes reducible to a single enduring conflict, symbolized by the historic battle between Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay in the election of 1832.

Morning Jay: 2012 – The Thrilla in Manila?

Jackson saw the status quo in government as an unfair payoff to the privileged, and believed that he should be the great leveling agent. This explains much of the Jacksonian agenda: the assault on the Second Bank of the United States, the elevation of the spoils system to a civic virtue, and efforts to secure more land for poor Western farmers.

Clay, the greatest statesman never to become president, advocated for the “American System,” a combination of protective tariffs to grow American industry, internal improvements to facilitate trade, and the Bank of the United States to stabilize the money and credit systems. The government was not, in Clay’s view, intended to be the great equalizer, but the great facilitator of American enterprise in all its varieties.

Today’s Democrats and Republicans can trace their roots to this conflict, although the road back in time is somewhat tortuous. For one thing, the issues that the country debates have largely changed, and in some cases the parties hold different positions than they once did: the Whigs supported higher tariffs while Republicans backed NAFTA; Jacksonian Democrats thought less government would level the playing field while liberal Democrats have reached the opposite conclusion. Still, the broader orientation to the country and its problems has remained generally the same. Borrowing a phrase from Theodore White, we might call it the everlasting battle of the “share out” against the “share up.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that the country has a real debate about these two ideologies every four years. It regularly does not, for two reasons. First, we can thank the political parties, which are not inherently ideological. Instead, they are focused solely upon electoral victory, and in pursuit of that goal they often find it advantageous to suppress, distort, or altogether eschew ideological distinctions. They regularly did this during the long periods in American history when the two party coalitions were more sectional than ideological. But even Franklin Roosevelt, the architect of today's Democratic Party, did not offer a clear sense of what he planned for the nation when he campaigned in 1932. Then, for the next seven presidential elections, conservatives complained that Northeastern establishment Republicans offered an "echo, not a choice" for the sake of electoral victory, fearful that a head-on battle with the New Deal "share out" would result in a GOP rout. When the conservative Goldwater ran in 1964, the liberal LBJ was at great pains to paint himself as a moderate in pursuit of his "Frontlash" strategy. Even more recently, evidence of strategic obfuscation abounds. Michael Dukakis emphasized competence; Bill Clinton was a New Democrat; George W. Bush a compassionate conservative; John McCain a maverick Republican. All of these were intentional attempts to blur the ideological lines in order to gain an electoral edge.

Second, elections are often determined by non-ideological events or issues. In 1980 Ronald Reagan was able to run on the general sense that Jimmy Carter had failed as a leader. In 1984 Reagan and Walter Mondale were worlds apart ideologically, yet the eye-popping growth of the economy in 1983-84 enabled Reagan to run a non-ideological campaign based on “Morning in America.” Similarly, the heated arguments of 1994-95 dissolved away by 1996 thanks to the runaway economic growth, and in their place Clinton offered his gauzy "Bridge to the 21st Century." The ideological distinctions between George W. Bush and John Kerry were overwhelmed by the Iraq war in 2004, and the economic crisis quashed any great ideological debate that McCain and Barack Obama were set to have in 2008. 

It's strange to think of things this way because the two great ideologies really animate our political life, but it's nevertheless true that very often they remain under the surface when parties are appealing to the non-ideological, moderate voters who swing elections. There have only been a handful of presidential elections in which both sides take clear, unequivocal, ideological stands on a spectacularly important issue that dominates the campaign. In fact, one could argue that just two elections in modern electoral history have met that criteria: 1832 and 1896.

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