CAERDROIA ON THE TWO PARTY SYSTEM AND PARTISAN VS. PERSONALITY POLITICS OF THE PRESIDENCY
I found Jeff’s choice of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton as examples of presidents unable to rise above party to be intriguing and understandable. There are numerous, perhaps innumerable, examples of each man during their political careers acting in fundamentally groundbreaking ways to extend partisanship into heretofore nonpartisan or apolitical arenas.
Nixon’s use of impoundment, refusal to fill subcabinet posts to cripple hostile bureaucracies, his pioneering ( with political guru Murray Chotiner) of negative advertising all leap to mind ( The Watergate plumbers were hardly novel except in the sense that the FBI ” black bag jobs” that had been done for presidents by J.Edgar Hoover since at least FDR were privately outsourced by Nixon). On Clinton’s watch we see the wholesale sacking of the fifty U.S. Attorneys, the infamous White house coffees, the sale of presidential pardons, the ” war room ” operation to name just a few examples. In essence, both men as presidents were supremely partisan in the negative sense of attacking the other party, but were they ” positive partisans ” ? Did they do much of anything to help their own side ? I think the case can be made that Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were with their party, not of their party and that of the two men, Clinton succeeded in this gambit where Nixon failed.
Nixon, at least as president, was entirely distant not only from the national party and the Congressional GOP but even from his own Republican appointees within his administration. An even casual perusal of the Haldeman Diaries or Stanley Kutler’s transcriptions of Nixon’s tapes in his Abuse of Power makes clear Nixon’s utter disdain for the intellectual and political abilities of his own allies. Richard Reeves has written a masterful profile of Nixon’s enormous analytical prowess operating in a self-imposed isolation, screened by Haldeman and Ehrlichman, scribbling ideas on yellow legal pads or conferring with Henry Kissinger or John Connally. The former of course was an Eastern Establishment professional intellectual and the latter a Democrat, supposedly the last kind of people the partisan anticommunist, Richard Nixon would choose to provide close counsel.
When he ran for re-election in 1972, Nixon’s association with the rest of the GOP was merely incidental – as he rolled up a historic landslide against George McGovern the party lost seats in Congress. Once ensconced in office Nixon demanded resignation letters from his entire cabinet and set about centralizing the executive branch decision making in his own hands, basically stiff-arming the Congress. Of course, when Nixon needed Congressional Republicans to weather Watergate, they deserted him and Goldwater led a delegation to tell Nixon to resign. In the aftermath of Watergate, the 1974 elections almost destroyed the GOP as a political party, all thanks to Nixon.
Bill Clinton’s presidency was almost as devastating to the Democrats but Clinton secured both loyalty and control over the party apparatus – a control that continues to this day. The fortunes of fellow Democrats and the party were almost completely subordinate to Clinton’s immediate political needs. The worst thing a political leader could do, according to Tip O’Neill, was to make someone cast a vote that would cost them the election. Clinton’s initial budget was passed by coercing a freshman Democrat into a vote that would-and did- result in her being a one term Congressman.
If Nixon and the GOP were like a married couple undergoing trial separation then the paradigm for the Democratic Party and Clinton was that of a battered wife and her abuser – addicted to his charm, fundraising prowess, fealty to abortion-rights and hatred of the Republicans. Nixon left office in disgrace; after costing his party the Congress and a majority of the governorships Clinton sits on a political empire. His creature, Terry McAuliffe is DNC chairman, his foundations and presidential library are flush with cash, Hillary is a senator from New York and two of the presidential candidates for the nomination came from his camp with Clinton’s advice and blessing. Even Herbert Hoover, a longtime GOP stringpuller from behind the scenes in retirement, never matched the power Bill Clinton wields over his party as an ex-president. He’s the most powerful and influential former president in American history.
Someday, we’ll see Bill Clinton back again in an overt role – perhaps as UN Secretary-General or First Husband to President Hillary or even in the Senate, probably in Tom Daschle’s job. Nixon, who was in five national elections and won four of them – a record I believe is matched only by FDR – cannot compare, he lacked not partisanship nor intellect nor will to power but the right kind personality.