Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Founders Flounder

by Michael Liss

There was a time when we had no political parties.

It was brief, like the glow of a firefly on a warm late summer evening, but it occurred. There were no political parties at the time of the American Revolution, or when the newly freed colonies joined in the Articles of Confederation. None at the time they went to Philadelphia to hammer out the Constitution, and none when it was ratified (although the supporters of it were called Federalists and Alexander Hamilton eventually organized them as a party). For the first three years of the new government, until May of 1792, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded the Democratic-Republican Party, the Federalists were the only political party in the land.

When we 21st Century Americans, out of desperation, look to the Constitution for a way out of intractable and pernicious partisanship, we often look in vain for the answers because they really aren’t there. The Constitution was not intentionally designed to compensate for party-based partisanship. Rather, it was a balancing act between regional forces, between economic interests, between small and big states, between slave and free, and between political philosophies. The Framers needed to find enough compromises to get the states to agree to the new framework. No interest got everything, but all got something, because they had to. Why join otherwise?

Obviously, the Framers were aware of political parties (England’s Parliament had its Whigs and Tories). They were also aware of the dangers of partisanship (most notably, Madison in Federalist No. 10). But they hadn’t yet made the leap to only negotiating governance through the synthetic framework of a multiparty system, nor to the idea of candidates for Chief Executive differentiating themselves by party identification. The model for a President was in front of everyone—George Washington.

They also, as would soon seem obvious, didn’t really have an agreement on what we think of as a core question: just how much reach the national government should have. Madison’s exquisitely designed mechanism assigned (tolerably well) responsibility and created a modality for action, but it didn’t, and couldn’t, resolve the fact that any system of government creates winners and losers. He assumed compromise would be necessary and hoped that the dynamic equilibrium he created would foster it. Federalist No. 10 tells us he wasn’t naïve, but he still had hopes.

Finally, the Founders assumed that men (and they were all men) would, in the aggregate, find it within themselves to act simultaneously in their self-interests, their state and regions’ interests, and in the national interest.

They could be a bit optimistic because they had just done this: put aside enough of their parochial interests to act in a Burkean manner and make a Grand Bargain. In retrospect, this confidence might seem to have been misplaced, but it was not inherently irrational. Whatever their political differences, they understood one another. The best type of leadership would come from people like them: men of education, of property, of experience in leading other men. The fears they had about representative democracy came less from concern about their fellow aristocrats, and more from the rabble. Sensitive to those concerns, Madison and his fellow drafters created plenty of distance between actual authority and the rank-and-file voters.

Still, it was all just a theory that men could govern themselves. These men hadn’t even lived in a Constitutional monarchy. They were just a bunch of colonies under the thumb of the most powerful nation on Earth, one that did not faint at the use of coercion to get its way. Meaningful representation had been denied them; they had been taxed, imprisoned, even forced to quarter their own captors. The colonial assemblies they did have had little real influence. Now they were “free,” but what did that really mean? It’s hard to govern, and to accept governance, when no prior guidebook has been internalized.

At the very beginning, the nation had the enormous advantage of having George Washington as its first President. It is not possible for us to grasp the hold Washington had on the population when he began his Presidency in 1789. His prestige was enormous. His blessing was necessary for the Constitution; he gave eminence and legitimacy to the Office of the Presidency that it created; he was, in many respects, the benevolent King that George III had never been. Yet those assets came at a price: Washington would be a strong Chief Executive heading a strong central government, when so many in the country thought the Constitution said otherwise. And, because he was technically unaffiliated (although presumed to have views similar to Hamilton), he couldn’t be attacked as a factional leader. In fact, he couldn’t really be openly criticized at all because of the reverence with which the people treated him. This meant you could only oppose the government’s actions in the abstract, or by going through proxies.

It didn’t take all that long for those proxies to become well-defined. By the middle of Washington’s first term, Hamilton (as Secretary of the Treasury) was continuously facing off against Jefferson (as Secretary of State). These two men found virtually nothing that they could agree upon, especially in the key areas of foreign policy (with Hamilton’s wanting closer relations with England, and Jefferson’s tilting towards his beloved France) and the authority of the Federal government (Hamilton was for a great deal, while Jefferson barely recognized it).

In the beginning, Jefferson was at a considerable disadvantage because Hamilton had a huge head start in both organization and patronage. By creating the Federalist Party, Hamilton accomplished three major goals: giving it the imprimatur of leading the country, creating an infrastructure at the state level for expressing influence and attracting votes, and distributing patronage. Jefferson, in contrast, effectively had on golden handcuffs—while he could argue his case inside the Cabinet, he couldn’t publicly oppose the government of which he was a part.

Enter, James Madison. Madison had undergone something of a political conversion. Where he was once concerned about the central government’s (and the President’s) not having enough power to be effective, now he pivoted and professed to understand the Constitution he had largely written as having much more of a states-rights emphasis. Madison was an unexpected example of what happened to many American leaders when faced with the reality of the new government. A theoretical framework was just that, and, if the end product took them in an undesirable direction, they had no problem reading their own preferences into its vast ambiguities. Madison then partnered with Jefferson (quietly at first, more openly when the Democratic-Republican Party became public) in opposition to the Federalists. As inspirational and charismatic as Jefferson could be, it was Madison who did much of the spadework of putting together the party apparatus.

Where was John Adams in all of this? Absent for much of the period from 1777 to 1788, working on behalf of his country. First, in Paris with Benjamin Franklin to negotiate an alliance with France and later the end of hostilities (a more mismatched pair it was hard to imagine), then with Jefferson trying to establish legal recognition and diplomatic relations with foreign nations, and finally in London, in the critical job of first Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

It is one of those ironies of history that neither Adams nor Jefferson attended the Constitutional Convention, and so played at best an indirect role in drafting the Constitution. If they had been there, then perhaps they would have suggested a viable work-around for something that would bedevil them both in the future.

John Adams felt the pain first, as the nation would honor his service by giving him the worst job in government, “the most insignificant office that even the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived.” Adams became George Washington’s Vice President. Then, as now, the job contained its expectant undertaker’s aspect—the Vice-President should be ready to serve when duty called. And then, as now, the Vice-President played a role in breaking ties in the Senate. Finally, then, as now, that’s all there was.

Adams being Adams, he thought his Senate role should include speaking (actually, a lot of speaking). And, Adams being Adams, obnoxious and disliked, he quite quickly wore out his listeners, who then voted to silence him. Apparently, the decisive moment occurred when he allowed himself to argue, endlessly, that a President should be called “His Majesty” or “His Highness.”

It’s hard to imagine this prickly, opinionated, deeply flawed, but utterly loyal and truly great man being muzzled at a time when even his eruptions might have added something of value, but Adams was. His position in the Administration became even more marginalized because his silent presence in the (substantially smaller) Senate was often actually needed—he cast a tie-breaking vote over 30 times. This meant he was unable to attend Cabinet meetings regularly, and he found himself outside of Washington’s inner circle (the President feeling that the job was largely legislative and that too-close consultation between him and Adams might therefore violate separation of powers).

As to Washington himself, he found himself frustrated and angered by the emerging partisanship and, perhaps, to the emerging resistance to his decisions. The country was still weak; its political institutions were new and fragile; it was still somewhat diplomatically isolated; and England and France were still potentially hostile behemoths. He had always intended on serving only one term, but the old General could see that the enemy was not only at the gates, but might also be within.

The great lesson that Washington had learned in fighting the British was that time mattered more than even geography. As long as he could field an army, the American Experiment would go on. He was confident in his own abilities, less so in those of the men who surrounded him. They didn’t look ready to him.

At this critical juncture, he decided to stand for re-election, knowing the challenges ahead might be even greater than those already faced. He was largely right—the Jay Treaty, his Proclamation of Neutrality, and his forceful ending of the Whiskey Rebellion were in the future, as was Jefferson’s resignation from the Cabinet to pursue his own ambitions. But he was still George Washington, still first in the hearts of his countrymen (if not all of the politicians who aspired to higher office). It was a quirk of the pre-political party Constitution that the two highest Electoral College vote-getters would be President and Vice-President—there was no consideration given to a ticket. This was to lead to some serious mischief in the two elections to follow, but, here, there was only a harbinger. Washington was essentially unopposed and re-elected unanimously. Adams, however, found himself in a tighter-than-expected race for the Vice-Presidency. The newly minted Democratic-Republican Party fielded a candidate against him, New York’s Governor George Clinton. Clinton won his own state and a few southern ones, including North Carolina and, of course, Jefferson and Madison’s Virginia. In Congress, there was a very tight split between supporters of the Administration and those opposed.

That split, and others, would manifest themselves constantly over the next few years, and Washington’s frustrations would grow. Even his own Teflon began to fray a bit, as more of the Administration’s opponents would start to whisper that he wasn’t really in control any more, and was perhaps growing a bit feeble. He was still a giant, though, as Madison was to find out when he opposed the Jay Treaty and was routed.

As for Adams, he remained locked in circumstantially required silence, tagged with the blame for policies he had little influence over. Because of his thin skin, he was an easy target, perhaps even easier than the hated Hamilton. Jefferson, on the other hand, grew more and more voluble in opposition, less and less disciplined in language. The two sides began to think of each other not merely as disagreeing on policy, but fundamentally mortal enemies who must be defeated.

Washington the Hedgehog had grasped that, and more. In 1792, despite an abundance of talent, we weren’t really ready for the implications of the choice of government we made in adopting the Constitution. The next four years were to prove more of the same. We wouldn’t be ready in 1796, as the war between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans—and between former collaborators and friends, Adams and Jefferson—got even hotter.

All this Washington knew as he prepared to leave office. The unhappiness he expressed in his Farewell Address said it well, but only hinted at something that was obvious: the chalice he would be handing over to his successor, whomever that might be, was not exactly filled with the smoothest of wines.

More on that—on the battle between the two parties and between former collaborators and friends Adams and Jefferson, the role of the French, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Judiciary Act of 1801 and Adams’ appointment of “Midnight Judges,” Jefferson’s extraordinary road to the Presidency (on the 36th ballot), and the “Second Revolution”—next time.

The Founders Flounder was first published on Monday, April 26th, 2021 on

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Monday, May 3, 2021

Dewey Really Does Beat Truman

 By Michael Liss

Let’s talk about voter suppression. Not about whether it’s good or bad or legal or moral (you can get more than enough of that virtually 24/7), but about what practical implications it might have.

I have looked at the 35 Presidential Elections from 1880 to 2020 to see how tight they were, and where modern forms of voter suppression might have impacted past results.

I made a few assumptions. The first was to limit it to just suppression, and not include potential crossover votes. To make that a bit clearer, if you have an election that ends up 50-50, I propose to simply eliminate votes from one side, not add to the other. I set the bar at two suppressed votes per hundred (I’m going to call that a “Suppression Penalty”), which I think is conservative, given the extent of some of the new laws being passed. Applying that 2% Suppression Penalty, would it have changed the results of some of the closest and most controversial elections of the past?

Obviously, this is a crude method. Some states engage in suppression, others do not, and different forms of suppression will have disparate impacts. But I thought the exercise was worth it, as ever-increasing sophistication in targeting, along with a sense of anything goes, will encourage more use of the tactic.

140 years brings a lot of variations in races. Looking closer at the 35, at least 13 could be characterized as blowouts, including both Reagan wins, FDR’s, LBJ-Goldwater, Bush I-Dukakis, and Hoover-Smith. Another 11 were decisive, even if not routs. In this category, three William Jennings Bryan losses, both Clinton wins, both Obama wins (even though he carried Florida by only .88%, there was no real viable pathway for Romney, given his performance in other key states). In this Obama/Romney mold, I would also put Nixon-Humphrey. There is some historical evidence that Democrats were coming home to Humphrey late in 1968, but he ran out of time and the final numbers aren’t that close.

That leaves us with 10 elections of some interest: Trump-Biden and Trump-Clinton, Bush-Gore, JFK-Nixon, Truman-Dewey, Wilson-Hughes (1916), Benjamin Harrison-Cleveland (1888), Cleveland then regaining the White House against James Blaine (1884), James Garfield over Winfield Scott Hancock (1880), Bush II-Kerry (2024), and Ford-Carter (1976).

2016 and 2020: Given the recency of the Trump-Clinton and Trump-Biden elections, there is no reason to spend a lot of time on them, besides pointing out the obvious—we would be in Trump’s second term if the Republican State Legislators had managed to pass the bills they now enacted or have proposed in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia. Those three states represent 37 EVs, and, without them, the election would have been thrown into the House, giving Trump the win. As to 2016, Clinton’s relative underperformance elsewhere, as against expectations, put her in a position of having to win all three of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania (her fourth option, Florida, had a Trump margin of over 100,000 votes). It’s a bit ironic to note that, if the Democrats were good at Voter Suppression, and the same 2% Suppression Penalty had been applied to Trump’s vote, the Big Dog might still be hanging around the White House

2000: Of the other more modern elections, Bush-Gore is, of course, the most notorious. What is not often noted is that Gore won four states, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon (a total of 30 EVs) by very small margins (New Mexico’s was 343 votes). If they had switched places, with Gore getting Florida, but Bush getting the four, Bush would still have won. Wisconsin, Iowa, and Oregon total 25 EVs, so a swap of Florida’s 25 EVs for those three wouldn’t have changed anything. If Gore had won Florida, but Bush had won New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Iowa, or, alternatively, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Oregon, there would have been an EV tie, and into the House we would have gone. Imagine the fun we all would have had.

1976: Ford-Carter belongs in somewhat the same category as Humphrey-Nixon, but this election was closer. Ford was making big strides through the early Fall. Ohio was excruciatingly close—about an 11K margin for Carter out of more than 4 million votes cast, and the Suppression Penalty would have flipped the state, but that would have still left Carter with the win, and it was Ford who won the other closer states. The next closest win for Carter was in Wisconsin, but, applying our 2% Suppression Penalty would still have left Ford about 14,000 votes short.

2004: Bush II-Kerry is controversial, because of the suspicions (unproven) regarding Karl Rove’s fixing of the state’s votes. But the margin in Ohio was 118K for Bush, and the only other path for Kerry would have been to take from Bush New Mexico, Iowa and Nevada (although the spread in Nevada was outside the Suppression Penalty), keep the faithless Elector who voted for John Edwards, and then tie Bush 269 to 269. But that would have just pushed it to the House, where Bush would have won. Kerry needed Ohio, and, based on reported numbers, he wasn’t close enough.

1960: Another race similar to Bush-Kerry, in that it floated on something unprovable, was JFK-Nixon in 1960. We all sort of wink and nod about shady activities in Illinois, but what is forgotten is that Republicans’ affection for claiming vote fraud isn’t new…nor, in 1960, did they limit themselves to Illinois. There was also LBJ’s home state of Texas, where JFK won by about 46K. In all, Republicans claimed fraud in no fewer than 11 states. The election was brutally close (assuming the numbers were true). Six states had differences of less than 1%, and only one of those went Republican, Nixon’s home state of California. Hawaii was astonishing—JFK won there by a total of 115 votes. If you look closely at the results, and imagine a Suppression Penalty, there are multiple ways Nixon could have won…but, of all the elections we have had in the last 100 years, I doubt there was a tougher team in the trenches than JFK and LBJ.

1880: James Garfield-William Scott Hancock had several features that are worth mentioning, even though the result probably could not have been flipped. It was the first Presidential Election in which the voters of every state were permitted to vote directly for Electors; previously, there had been a few states (South Carolina, naturally) that had their State Legislatures pick them. There was also a third-party candidate, James Weaver, of the Greenbackers. Weaver got no Electoral votes, but may have siphoned off some Hancock votes in Indiana. The popular vote difference was the smallest in history, just 1898 votes. Scott, in losing, did something that had not been accomplished before—he united the Southern States, with the Solid South becoming critical to election planning for the next century. The race in California was extraordinary—the two men were separated by just 95 votes out of 160K cast. New Jersey was also close—2010 votes out of about 142K, but Hancock won both states. If you examine the state-by-state totals, it’s hard to see how Hancock could have flipped the end result.

1884: Four years later, Grover Cleveland managed a narrow victory over James Blaine when Cleveland took his home state of New York by 1,149 votes. Applying the Suppression Penalty, he clearly would have lost the state, and the Presidency. Adding more than a little spice to this election were the accusations that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child (which he did not deny) and the stunningly stupid remark of a New York minister, Doctor Samuel Burchard, who said Democrats were the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” (a comment that did Blaine no good among the Irish and Italian workmen in New York).

1888: Turnabout is fair play. Without the motivating insult, Cleveland lost his bid for reelection in 1888 when he lost New York to Benjamin Harrison. His loss, by 14,373 votes out of almost 1.3 million cast, is just outside our Suppression Penalty. It was also reflective of a close race nationally, although not close enough for a different outcome.

1916: Woodrow Wilson-Charles Evan Hughes. One of my favorites. Hughes was a unique figure in American life. He was first Governor of New York, then resigned to take a seat on the Supreme Court, resigned from SCOTUS to accept the 1916 Republican Presidential nomination, lost to Woodrow Wilson, then became Secretary of State under Harding and Coolidge, and then, in 1930, returned to the Supreme Court to become Chief Justice (where he bedeviled FDR). One wonders what he did in his spare time. It is the 1916 election that interests me here. Hughes actually didn’t “run” for the GOP nomination. He was selected by the party bosses in whatever smoke-filled room they smoked in because Republicans were desperate to avoid a repeat of the crack-up of 1912, with the party splintering along conservative and Progressive lines. Hughes was perceived as both a relative moderate and not particularly ideological. He also let it be known he’d accept if offered.

The race was close. Wilson was not a particularly accessible figure, and World War I was raging in Europe. Given that the Republicans were considered the majority party at that time, it was presumed that Wilson’s election in 1912 was an accident, and Hughes would regain the White House for them. Hughes had some flaws—he was quite anti-labor, and fairly militaristic at a time when the country seemed more attuned to Wilson’s attempts at neutrality. But the election may have turned on a gaffe—when Hughes went to campaign in California, he did not meet with Hiram Johnson, then Governor, formerly TR’s running mate.

On Election Night, the expectation was that Hughes would win, and early returns (and early editions of New York newspapers) indicated as much. Wilson took New Hampshire by 56 votes, Hughes, Minnesota by 468 out of nearly 400,000 cast. As the rest of the country sorted itself out, it came down to California, and the Hiram Johnson snub may very well have been the decider—Wilson won by 3773 votes, while the Prohibition candidate, James Hanly, took 27,713.

1948: One more, put last not because of chronology, but just because I like politicians with a little juice in them. Truman-Dewey, 1948, and the comeback that people thought impossible. Truman, of course, was an accidental President, chosen as FDR’s running mate because FDR knew his health was deteriorating and he did not want the incumbent Vice President, the very liberal Henry Wallace, to succeed him.

1948 found the nation in flux, newly empowered and newly challenged. Some wondered whether Truman was really up for the job. He had struggled in 1946, and perhaps the country was tired of Democrats. In the Midterms, the Republicans crushed Democrats virtually everywhere. They won 55 House seats, 12 Senators, flipped control of both chambers, and set about making Truman’s life a little bit harder. The most popular man in America, by a huge margin, was Dwight Eisenhower, and both parties sought him as their nominee. Everyone else, from the President on down, seemed puny. Ike, after assaying the field of battle, as Ike was inclined to do, declined to run and asked that his supporters cease their activities on his behalf. Eventually, the Republicans turned to Thomas Dewey, who had run a credible (if stolid) race against FDR four years before.

Democrats, as is and has seemingly always been, were a mess. Truman was not popular, particularly with the more liberal wing of the party. Henry Wallace was, and decided to go off on his own and helped create and lead a new Progressive Party. Southern Democrats were getting concerned that Truman was too sympathetic to civil rights, and walked out of the Democratic Convention over a platform plank supporting them. They formed the States Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats) and nominated Strom Thurmond for President. They all knew they had no chance of winning outright, but thought that, if they could deny Truman the victory and throw it into the House, they could extract concessions on Jim Crow from one of the sides.

No one thought Truman had a chance. Early polls showed him way behind; virtually every newspaper and pundit wrote him off. Republicans settled on a strategy not unlike Dewey himself—distant, boring and filled with platitudes. Truman, on the other hand, had a ball cutting loose. He ripped into the GOP-led 80th Congress, criticized Dewey, and generally gave Republicans Hell. Expectations amongst the pundit class didn’t change, but the voters began to. Truman’s crowds were jazzed up. Dewey’s began to thin, and those who came seemed unenthusiastic.

On election night, Truman took the early lead, which was initially dismissed, as columnists wrote (and, in some cases, filed) their “Dewey Beats Truman” stories. But Truman had closed the gap, and in more than one way. His institutional disadvantages—the Progressives and the Dixiecrats—turned out to be less problematic than expected. Wallace’s ticket got only 2.4% nationwide. The Dixiecrats took just four states, a wound for Truman, but not a fatal one.

The final Electoral Vote was 303 Truman, 189 Dewey, and 39 Dixiecrat, but, if you look more closely at the numbers, you can see Dewey came agonizingly close. Truman took Ohio’s 25 EV by just 7,107 and California’s 25 by 17,665—even a 1% Suppression Penalty would have flipped the states. Add Illinois 28EVs, and its margin of 33,612 and adjust for a Suppression Penalty of 1.5%, and we really would have had a President Dewey.

Thomas Dewey is elected President in 1948, and a butterfly flaps its wings. With Dewey running again in 1952, no Ike. No Ike, no Nixon as Vice-President, no Nixon as Veep, no Nixon in 1960 (possible Nelson Rockefeller and the GOP goes in an entirely new direction). Maybe no Nixon in 1968, no Agnew, no Ford, no Rockefeller as Veep. And, no Nixon, no Roger Stone. No Roger Stone….wait, that’s too far.

Dewey Really Does Beat Trump first appeared on on March 29th, 2021

You can find us on Twitter at @SyncPol

Friday, April 16, 2021

Down The Rabbit Hole With Schubert and Hawley


The Machine has me in its tentacles. Some algorithm thinks I really want to buy classical sheet music, and it is not going to be discouraged. Another (or, perhaps it is the same) insists that now is the time to invest in toner cartridges, running shoes, dress shirts, and incredibly expensive real estate.

Swinging over to the relative peace and quiet of my email box, I find an extraordinary number of politicians bidding against one another for my attention. It’s a little like Christmas come early: “Now, Stringer, now, Helen, now Andrew and Adams! On, Williams on, Loree! on, Kallos and Weprin! Every single one of them vibrates with intensity, assuring me that he or she is ready to serve me, my family, my community, and the world. Oh, and, by the way, brother, can I spare a dime?

I need my dimes right now. I’m not moving to a deluxe apartment in the sky, and I’ll buy more dress shirts when the world gets back to normal and I ditch this pandemic-related beard. So, back to Schirmer’s Selected Piano Masterpieces (Intermediate Level). I know my sin. My daughter and I were talking about the accompaniment in Schubert’s Lieder and I (foolishly, without going into a private viewing mode) did a quick search. This was more than two weeks ago, and The Machine will keep at me until it is convinced I absolutely, positively, won’t give in. Machine, if you are reading (and I know you must be), please trust me, I can’t play the piano, and I definitely can’t sing. I’d be happy to post something to YouTube to prove it. Or ask my friends to confirm—after all, you know who they are.

I invited this. I knew I wasn’t in a secure area; I wanted a quick answer to something; I browsed; and, in doing so, reaped the whirlwind. A good friend who works in tech reminds me, regularly, that the use of social media and search engines tag me, and free access to them is not free when I’m the product. I just pay the price when I hear from folks who sell Schubert and toner and footwear.

I am not alone. Short of heading to Walden Pond and completely unplugging (leaving one’s phone behind, of course) we all live with some version of the same Machine. Do we really have a choice? Not so long as some of the Titans of Tech keep a chokehold on the market and on the legislation regulating the market. You see politicians scurrying about, holding hearings, voicing outrage, and generally doing the ineffectual but noisy things they are famous for, but you don’t see them going after the core of the problem—the immense profitability that springs from knowing things like my (now regrettable) interest in Schubert. There’s just too much money in it, and, unlike some of our brethren in Europe, many of whom are philosophizing over the societal costs (see this thoughtful piece in 3Q), we tend to be situationally pro-free-market here, and fond of putting dollars over social harmony.

So, what are our elected leaders doing? Mostly worrying about themselves and looking for grievances. They know places like Facebook aren’t just about selling consumer goods, they are also about selling ideas and causes, and creating and sustaining access points to exchange them. Politicians and political parties profit from this, either literally from fundraising, or emotionally, through either inspiration or provocation.

It was inevitable that smart candidates hired smart techies to get across their message. Obama ran a very sharp digital ground game built around his message of hope and change, and that helped energize more tech-savvy younger voters. But it was truly a seminal moment when Cambridge Analytica obtained data from Facebook and, with direction from Steve Bannon, used it to test out populist and conservative messages, and identify potential voters who might be interested in them. Bannon’s linking up with former President Trump was a genius-level move that combined Cambridge Analytica’s sophistication with Trump’s unparalleled emotional connection with his base, supercharged by use of Twitter.

Trump is the embodiment of politics on steroids, and once one slugger goes to the needle, the rest will follow. Other candidates, party organizations, and issue groups did. We are now surrounded with Mini-Trumps using many of the same techniques. Democrats haven’t entirely closed their eyes to this either, and they, too, are getting more sophisticated and less cautious.

This is an extraordinarily dangerous trend because, in what has increasingly become a winner-take-all system, the morality of the means seems far less important than achieving the ends. There are a lot of lies out there, deliberately spread for their emotional impact, capturing the thoughts of whole groups—and many of those groups make their homes on places like Facebook. Some of those turn to advocating for dangerous and even lethal behavior.

One might reasonably ask why this was not foreseeable to the leadership of the social media giants. After all, what they were doing was akin to renting out their restaurant to a group of anarchists or Klan members, and providing them with a list of potential customers. In fact, we know it was foreseeable, and know there were debates inside the industry. They were buried, because the profits were just too great.

Not to be too harsh, but the horse was well out of the barn before the insurrection of January 6th. Frightened by what it had enabled (and, quite cynically, perhaps reasoning that an autocratic government’s imperiousness might be a lot worse for the bottom line), social media looked to temporary bans, de-platforming, and purging. But none of that comes without controversy, both political and philosophical.

We ought to look at this from three different vantage points: free speech implications, private property rights, and potential consequences. I can’t think of a better person to build that discussion around than one of my least favorite politicians, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO).

Many know Hawley as the young, lean guy in the good suit who raised a fist in the air to encourage the rioters to storm the Capitol on January 6th. He’s Ivy-educated, considered a political prodigy, and has his eyes firmly set on the Resolute Desk.

Following that “iconic” picture, some grandstanding, and some intensely inflammatory remarks, Hawley found himself shunned not only by some in the Senate, but also by former supporters back home, including a major financial backer. He also lost a book contract with Simon & Schuster and temporarily went silent on Twitter. The Senator was furious, headed for every conservative talk show and conference he could find, and made grievances his breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Senator Josh’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad experience is a perfect teaching example. From my perspective, it is thoroughly earned. But, when you clear away all the fire and brimstone, does he have a legitimate complaint?

To an extent, he does. He certainly should be able to exercise his First Amendment rights, and, short of calls to violence and libel, those rights are fairly broad. We don’t demand people be truthful, or honorable, much less to agree with us, to have those rights. If you are going to shut down Hawley (or any other person, no matter how fringe), you need more than just revulsion as a justification.

Where is the justification? I do not see it. We shouldn’t censor based on content, unless that content falls within some sort of public safety imperative. If Josh Hawley wants to stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shout insults about Democrats he’s got every right to do so.

Hawley frames some of his grievances in that way—that mean Leftists and their allies in the media are trying to stifle him. But when you dig a little deeper, you realize there’s an additional dynamic involved. Social media platforms are private businesses. Shouldn’t the owners/managers of businesses be permitted to choose who they serve, so long as they don’t violate anti-discrimination laws? Josh Hawley went to Harvard Law School—surely he knows that attorneys turn down clients when they don’t think it’s a good match. By the same token, shouldn’t those same businesses be permitted to decide what they display (in this case, content) just like any business can choose its stock? We wouldn’t force a bookstore to carry Hawley’s book; why should we force Twitter to transmit his Tweets?

There is an obvious answer here, which is that the tech behemoths exercise monopoly power, akin to that of many public utilities. Those utilities are required to serve any customer who wishes to use them, so long as the customer is willing to abide by basic rules. So, too, Cable broadcasters are subject to “must carry” regulations regarding local television stations. Why not extend those types of consumer protections to the social media industry?

It is an intriguing question, particularly if you favor criteria that are broadly tolerant of freedom of speech and assembly. Let’s take a leap of faith and say that both business and politicians are willing to make good-faith efforts to find solutions to prune back some of the deeply fringe and scary, while protecting access more generally. What does that look like?

If, for example, Hawley doubles down and insists that the election was stolen, Hugo Chavez is alive, and 24 million Democratic votes came from a Zombie factory in Haiti, shouldn’t he be permitted to do that? If he wants to advocate for peaceful Civil Disobedience to the Biden Administration, shouldn’t he be permitted to do that as well? The red line can’t be bizarre and divisive theories and excessive self-aggrandizement. It has to be more—words that are a potential danger to the public at large, such as those targeting an individual or a group, promoting self-harm, or inciting violence.

Of course, a platform that is completely open to whatever Josh Hawley wants to say, whenever he wants to say it, is not really what he wants, or, to put it more precisely, it’s not all that he wants. What Hawley craves is an environment in which there are no consequences for anything he says or does. He is angered that he’s been judged and feels he’s above the scrutiny being given to him. The open rejections by his previous supporters sting, and the loss of the Simon & Schuster contract is a loss of face. He is defiant, getting louder, more obnoxious, more disruptive, but he’s too smart not to realize he’s been diminished in the public eye. Hawley may be a force for decades; he may even, in this insanely partisan environment, become President, but he’s never going to recover the central promise of his early years. He’s shown himself, and it’s not pretty. The market for his product has been radically altered.

This is where the Hawley experience is so valuable to us—the idea that exercising freedoms that are Constitutionally guaranteed may still lead to consequences. Mike Lindell, the “My Pillow” guy, complained recently that he’s lost $65 million in business. Putting aside the pun that I’m not going to cry myself to sleep over that, why should he be immune? If a business owner puts up a sign asking people to wear a mask, or not to bring a gun into his store, and he loses some customers because of it, that’s a choice he’s made, understanding the risks. It is, coincidentally, the choice I am making as well, by publishing this piece under my own name. A potential client might find it and disagree with it enough to decide not to hire me.

This result is not inherently unjust, although it may, at times, seem disproportionate. I don’t see how regulating social media platforms changes that. Yet, I don’t think that really is the problem. The amplification of anger, paranoia, and an urge to violence is. It’s eating at our civil society, and perhaps even our civilization.

Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology notes that people have been focused on the moment when the “intelligence” of machines exceeds humans. That’s not what we should be fearing: “There’s this much earlier moment when technology actually overwhelms human weaknesses.” In testimony before Congress, he asked what might be the critical question of our time: “How can we solve the world’s most urgent problems if we’ve downgraded our attention spans, downgraded our capacity for complexity and nuance, downgraded our shared truth, downgraded our beliefs into conspiracy theory thinking that we can’t construct shared agendas to solve our problems?”

Harris is right. The Machine is not only messing with our heads, but also with our glands. That red light that’s flashing on a screen up ahead isn’t just another pitch for sheet music, or shirts, or political causes. It is a “road washed out ahead” sign,.

We’d better take heed of it.

 Down The Rabbit Hole With Schubert And Hawley first appeared on March 1, 2021 at

You can find it, and links to other pieces at

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Third Transition: Trump to Biden and the Return to Politics

 By Michael Liss

Some may belittle politics, but we know, who are engaged in it, that it is where people stand tall. And although I know it has its many harsh contentions, it is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. And if it is on occasions the place of low skullduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes, and I wish everyone, friend or foe, well, and that is that, the end. —Tony Blair, ending his last PMQ, June 27, 2007

Yes, that was Tony Blair, the man everyone loves to hate, but in those few short words, he managed to capture the highs and lows of a democratic system. Politics can be rough and tawdry, but debates can be substantive, goals high, and accomplishments, perhaps not as high, but still advancing the good of the many. In the end, you fight like cats and dogs, but you shake hands, accept the verdict, and prepare yourself for the next battle.

This belief, that there is always next time, is predicated on three key assumptions—that, in our system, there is, in fact, always a next time, that even winning coalitions will screw up enough to ensure that the next time may be viable, and that the loser (if the incumbent) will cooperate in the orderly transition of power.

That is the theory, and, for most of our history, that has also been the reality. Winning coalitions stay winning because they deliver policies that a majority support. They fray when internal discipline breaks down (usually because of unsatisfied desires or ambitions), and/or when they become so sclerotic, doctrinaire, or just wrong that enough of the public rejects them. Lincoln’s election in 1860 reflected a reality that the disparate needs of North and South could no longer be reconciled within the status quo. FDR’s trouncing of Hoover was the rational judgment of the voters that Hoover had simply failed, and would continue to fail. Trump’s victory in 2016 was a reminder of not only Hillary Clinton’s flaws as a candidate, but also Barack Obama’s shortcomings as a President. As much as I admired Obama, he didn’t do enough for enough people to earn transferable loyalty during a time when, as my friend Bill Benzon notes, the tectonic plates were moving. The voters really do choose.

2020, for all of its insanity, was more of the same. In a closely divided country, enough voters decided to do as voters have occasionally done, judge the incumbent, and find him wanting. The difference this time wasn’t that the incumbent was unhappy about the decision (losing is no fun), but that he acted on that unhappiness, in ways never before seen.

We can’t ignore the obvious. Donald Trump attempted a coup. He rejected and fought against the verdict of the voters in several states. He did so despite multiple recounts and more than 60 court rulings against him. The weakness of his legal claims wasn’t just demonstrated by his terrible batting average, but by the fact that he was unable to retain competent counsel. Rudy, Lin Wood, Jenna Ellis, and the Kraken-Lady seemed pulled out of a grainy 1930s Tod Browning horror movie.

“Legal” avenues weren’t Trump’s only tool in the toolbox. There were also both proffered spoils and punishments to those in positions to make decisions as to the validity of ballots. It’s a tribute to those folks, particularly Republicans, that they managed to hold the line under intense pressure, including credible threats to their lives and the lives of their families.

Finally, there was the lethal January 6th riot at the Capitol. There is little question that Trump encouraged it with his own words, and apparently watched it live on TV with some glee. A full investigation of how it took place will likely not only reveal errors of omission and commission, but also some near-catastrophic risk-taking, including on the part of some highly placed individuals. If the country ever learns it all (and I suspect it won’t), we will have to grapple with some very uncomfortable truths, some of which will be destabilizing.

The entire episode, from the challenged results to the violence, demands an impartial investigation and, where appropriate, legislation. We likely won’t get either. It’s clear that the GOP has no interest in finding out things they do not care to know, and certainly none in crafting legislation that might limit mischief at the state level in how votes are recognized.

Can we do without them? It’s a terrible mistake to take no lessons from this. Yet, we should also recognize that there are two equally important things going on in parallel that will have more impact on us in the short term: Joe Biden’s attempt to bring back competence and traditional politics into governing, and the GOP’s struggle with itself.

Let’s talk about Republicans for a moment, as part of Biden’s two-party-politics goal (beyond mere opposition) will be nearly impossible until the GOP finds a way to reconcile its internal differences. There are three semi-viable wings (true Never-Trumpers are not one of them) to the GOP. The first consists of the emotionally committed Trump Acolytes and the segment of “Leadership” Republicans aligned with them. The second are the situationally committed-to-Trump Republicans, who, out of either opportunism or fear (or both—think, Marco Rubio), stay inside the Trump Tent. And the third (and presently weakest group) are the Republicans who would love for this long national nightmare to come to an end and go back to the good old days, where the GOP was the sane, pro-business, socially conservative, interventionist-on-foreign-policy Party. As an inexact shorthand, we can call these folks McConnell Republicans (Reagan Republicans are largely extinct in most areas of the country.)

That there were 140 House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise, who simply refused to accept that Biden was validly elected tells you that the combined strength of the Acolytes and Situational Trumpists represents a decisive bloc. No one is moving the Acolytes. They are pledged to Trump and will remain with him as long as he wishes. It’s the Situational Trumpists who are more in play, or at least were.

McConnell’s public passivity is surprising. He obviously detests Trump (after years of enabling him) and blames him for loss of control of the Senate. But he (at least so far) hasn’t seized on any opportunities to take the now-out-of-office Trump down a peg. The Capitol riot seemed to be the ideal entry point—McConnell could have immediately gone out front in insisting on a bipartisan investigation, and he could have used that as leverage for concessions from President Biden. This might have not only unified his group, but provided cover/herd immunity for some of the cowed Situational Trumpists. Instead, he’s caught up in claiming Trump can’t be impeached, and he’s now committed to obstructing an investigation that might have liberated him. That McConnell has chosen this path tells us he’s not ready to strike—he’s not hearing enough willingness from his fellow Republican Senators to risk a fight with Trump. He also must have doubts about McCarthy, who just made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago and shows no inclination to curb his uncritical obedience.

McConnell’s problems don’t end with Trump. He also has Ted Cruz and the new It-Boy of sedition, Josh Hawley, looking for any microphone to grab. And he has to worry about Marjorie Taylor Greene, the conspiracy-spouting, violence-encouraging bigot who may be a rising star in the GOP. To deal with Greene, he needs McCarthy’s cooperation, but McCarthy may prefer mollifying one (or 25 or 50) kookie Members of Congress to further his own ambitions to be Speaker.

The irony is that Greene is probably a bigger problem for McConnell than she is for McCarthy. McConnell wants to recapture the Senate in 2022, and few of his at-risk Senators want to have to defend her. AOC and The Squad may be the Democratic boogie man with which Republicans look to scare swing voters, but Greene won’t help any, if they’re looking to expand the base. Nor does she add value. She’s certifiable, and the GOP already has the certifiable vote locked up.

What it comes down to is that Republicans haven’t quite figured out who is in charge, and so haven’t set upon a coherent strategy to engage with Biden. In the absence of this, they are incapable of being constructive in any way. Whether this will hurt them in 2022/24 is unclear, but, for now, they look both churlish and childish.

So, what about the Democrats, beyond the usual fuzziness? Here is where Joe Biden’s talents are in full display. He played the Trump coup thing well, staking out his ground, but not going hyperbolic. While Trump ranted, Biden was calm and Presidential, effectively counterpunching.

He is building a government right now, and doing it at an extraordinarily high speed. One of the unexpected benefits of Trump’s active obstruction of transition (including placing new political employees in key jobs after the election), is that Biden’s team is assembling what it wants, rather than even attempting to mollify holdovers.

Biden had nearly all Cabinet and sub-cabinet nominations ready, and was shrewd enough to make them highly qualified, as well as largely non-controversial and hard for the GOP to oppose. In addition, The New York Times’ David Sanger reported that, beyond the positions involving confirmations, staffing had already been decided for over 1,000 high-level appointees. This group, chosen for technical expertise, was promptly sworn in by Biden, en masse, by Zoom.

As to political Trump staffers, they were told to clean out their desks, or placed on administrative leave or transferred to a “Rubber Room” destination where they can’t do any harm. Trump’s politicization of virtually everything he could get his hands on (often spearheaded by John McEntee, the 30-year-old Director of Personnel, who made it clear that loyalty to Trump was an essential qualification) marks those people as being likely both obstructionist and corrosive. Some of the dismissals may result in legal action, but the Biden team thinks that it is essential to implement policies and have them gain traction, without Trump’s people getting in the way.

Moreover, Biden is doing what he can with a pen, signing Executive Orders to reverse Trump policies that were also enacted by Executive Orders. On the international front, Biden has signaled to our traditional allies that they won’t be bashed anymore, and to Trump’s foreign friends that the rules of engagement have changed. The one area where Biden is sustaining a portion of Trump’s policies is with China, which is clearly trying to muscle its way to Top Dog status.

All this is making Republicans completely nuts, when they can take a moment out from trashing their own folks for apostasy on the Trump front. They seem to be left with only two responses—grievance about how meanly they are being treated on social media, and procedural complaints about Trump’s looming Impeachment trial. “Where’s the bipartisanship,” they ask, defining bipartisanship as a continuation of all Trump policies and an ending of any investigations.

This isn’t going to cut it. Republicans have to decide who owns them. They can let themselves work only for Trump, objecting to all Biden initiatives because that’s what Trump wants. Or they can try to redeem a portion of what they placed in blind trusts when Trump was elected and participate in government in a constructive way.

Whichever path they take, they will still have victories. There are backstops in place: the filibuster, the occasional leverage moderate Democrats may give them, and the Trump-stuffed Supreme Court. What they won’t possess is the White House, and, after four years of tolerating every Trumpian overreach without complaint, they have empowered his successor to act unilaterally in ways that will deeply upset them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Joe Biden is a compromiser. He wants a deal. He will give them more than they have a right to expect, and certainly more than Trump ever offered Democrats. Together, Biden and the GOP could pull politics out of “the place of low skullduggery” and make it “more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.” But Republicans have to be willing to play.

After a half century in public service, Joe Biden surely knows who he is. It’s up to Republicans to decide who they are. Let’s hope they choose wisely.

Postscript: On Sunday January 31st, ten Republican Senators, Susan Collins, Rob Portman, Bill Cassidy, Lisa Murkowski, Mike Rounds, Mitt Romney, Todd C. Young, Shelley Moore Capito, Jerry Moran, and Thom Tillis made a COVID Stimulus bid of $600 Billion, to counter Biden’s $1.9 Trillion proposal. The GOP bid strips out things Republicans don’t like, like aid to states and cities and raising the Federal Minimum Wage.  Tactically, it’s interesting, as ten GOP votes would enable passage of the bill without Reconciliation. Several of the ten had harsh criticism for Biden “going it alone” but they must know they have made him an offer he likely must refuse. They must also have had permission from McConnell to do it.  Of course, it’s politics. Now, does it cause further negotiations, or just talking points?

The Third Transition: Trump to Biden, first was published on February 1, 2021

You can find is at

Please also look for us on Twitter at @SyncPol

Sunday, February 21, 2021

A Tale Of Three Transitions: Part II, Hoover To FDR (On 3Q)

 By Michael Liss

Adlai Stevenson, in the concession speech he gave after being thoroughly routed by Ike in the 1952 Election, referenced a possibly apocryphal quote by Abraham Lincoln: “He felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.”

Stevenson got over it sufficiently to try again in 1956 (he stubbed a different toe, even harder), but the point remains the same. Losing stinks. Having to be gracious about it also stinks. So, it’s not unreasonable to assume that having to be gracious about it when you are the incumbent stinks even more, but that’s the job. The country has made a choice, and (let us keep our eyes firmly planted in the past for now), it is incumbent on the incumbent to cooperate, even if it is not required that he suddenly adopt the policies of his soon-to-be successor.

Last month, I wrote about the fraught transition from Buchanan to Lincoln, which ended with secession and, shortly after Lincoln’s Inauguration, led to the Civil War. Lincoln, and all that he represented, was clearly anathema to Buchanan, who, when he got up the nerve, acted accordingly. This month, I’m turning to the potent clashes of ideology and ego that went into the transition between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Hoover was once one of the most admired men in the world. He had earned that through his service in World War I, first by aiding thousands of American tourists stranded in Europe, then, as Chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, by helping to feed millions of people. He returned home in 1917 to take a role as Food Administrator for the United States, and, without much statutory authority, accomplished logistical feats on food supply and conservation. Woodrow Wilson sent him back to Europe to head the American Relief Administration, where he led economic restoration efforts after the war’s end, distributed 20 million tons of food to tens of millions across the continent, rebuilt communications, and organized shipping on sea and by rail. His efforts were so extraordinary that streets were named after him in several European cities.

All this before he was 45, and, being someone who did not lack confidence, he set his eyes on the White House in 1920. Both parties were interested in this man of extraordinary ability, but, in a political misstep that perhaps sprung from a touch of hubris, he announced that he would accept the Republican nomination if they adopted a platform reflecting his priorities. The party bosses who ruled in that time chuckled at his naiveté and exhaled a bit at their escape from the possibility of Hoover running as a Democrat. After a series of inconclusive votes at the 1920 GOP convention, they ducked into a smoke-filled room and picked the estimable Warren Harding of Ohio, with Calvin Coolidge to be his running mate.

As a consolation prize, Hoover accepted a role as Commerce Secretary, building out that department during a term in office that stretched more than seven years and through two Presidencies. In 1927, Coolidge tapped him to organize relief efforts in the Midwest after a gargantuan flood of the Mississippi covered 25 thousand square miles of normally dry land. He did superb work, once again putting his name in the public view.

Hoover won the 1928 Republican nomination, then went on to crush Al Smith (the first Catholic candidate) in the general election. His victory was comprehensive: 444 Electoral Votes to 87 (Smith didn’t even carry his home state of New York) and a Popular Vote margin of over 6.4 million. He was an extraordinarily popular man the day he took office.

Roosevelt’s path to the 1932 nomination took an entirely different route. Hoover had truly been a self-made man. FDR, not. Born to the gentry, educated at Groton, Harvard, and Columbia, he served (with Hoover) in Wilson’s Cabinet as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. In one of the stranger ironies, he approached Hoover in 1920 to run as a ticket, with Hoover for President. After Hoover declared himself a Republican, Roosevelt pursued and got the Vice Presidential nomination behind James Cox.

In 1921, FDR contracted polio, and the arduous rehabilitation seemed to add a certain dogged toughness to his sunny personality. He gradually returned to public life, giving nominating speeches at the Democratic Conventions in 1924 and 1928, and allowed himself to be convinced to run for Governor of New York in 1928 (he expected, correctly, that Democrats would be routed). Despite the national tide, Roosevelt won by one percent. As Governor, he pushed for things like unemployment insurance and farm aid that would later be helpful in the 1932 campaign. He was a frontrunner at the 1932 Democratic Convention, eventually winning the nomination on the fourth ballot, after he was endorsed by John Nance Gardner, then Speaker of the House, soon to be the (far less powerful) Vice President.

Hoover initially misjudged Roosevelt, thinking him the easiest of the potential Democratic nominees to beat. He saw Roosevelt as unserious and ignorant of policy and thought the nascent New Deal dangerous. Hoover lacked the inner eye that the best politicians have—he was unable to judge himself and recalibrate when necessary. His early speeches, often dense, were filled with self-praise for a recovery simply not experienced by most people on the ground. In late October, after being urged by supporters to get tougher, he laced into Roosevelt in a stemwinder at Madison Square Garden (“the grass will grow in the streets of a hundred cities”), declaring that the New Deal, would in effect, destroy the American way of life. Hoover’s closest advisors believed the tide had turned, and that California was certain and even FDR’s New York was within their grasp.

They were all deluding themselves. The 1932 Presidential Election was nothing if not decisive. Election Day brought Roosevelt 472 Electoral Votes to Hoover’s 59, and a popular vote margin of over 7.1 million. Looking closer at some of the states, you can see that there were huge swings from Hoover to FDR, some as much as 20%. California was particularly cruel, as FDR flipped the state, with a nearly one million vote differential from 1928. By midday, Hoover, on his way back to his home on the Stanford campus, knew he’d lost. He conceded, by telegram, at about 1:00 AM New York time.

If transition effectively begins the minute the result is clear, what’s truly fascinating is how little stock Hoover put in what was clearly a brutal personal repudiation. It’s not that he claimed fraud or tried to undermine the results. He just believed that the public was foolish, that his policies were the only rational response to the Depression, and (more quietly but equally firmly) that FDR was a lightweight unable to fill his shoes. In Hoover’s mind, his duty was clear: convince (or manipulate) FDR into adopting those Hooverian policies until 1936, when the genuine article could be restored to his rightful place in the White House. His closest advisors agreed; the public was too emotional to think clearly.

As in Buchanan’s transition to Lincoln, FDR’s Inauguration was still four months distant. In Hoover’s mind, those were four months where he could make his case to the public that they have erred, instruct FDR in the finer points of his policies, and tarnish FDR’s halo just a bit before he even got started.

Hoover saw an opportunity almost immediately with the issue of Britain and France’s debt payments to the United States. Hoover had previously suspended those payments and, for a variety of reasons, wanted that policy continued. He knew this was unpopular domestically, and, if he could get FDR on board supporting his policy, he could tag him with it. An exchange of telegrams raised the issue, and a meeting was set for November 22, 1932 at the White House.

What is so interesting here is how the two men seemed to size each other up instinctively. Hoover simply didn’t trust Roosevelt. Standing instructions were that any calls or meetings would require a stenographer and at least one “second.” There was a reason for this beyond Hoover’s almost irrational dislike of the man. Roosevelt was very skilled at being aimiable, but noncommittal, a talent which ended up being amply on display.

Hoover prepared obsessively before the meeting. After a few obligatory courtesies, the President launched into an hour-long soliloquy on international economic issues, while FDR sat quietly, pleasantly smiling and nodding. Hoover’s intention here, beyond further taking Roosevelt’s measure, was to use the appearance of access (a “joint board”) in return for FDR’s giving Hoover a free hand to set policy. Hoover thought he had FDR hooked, but the following day learned that Roosevelt had rejected the idea. Roosevelt’s message was clear: Hoover was still President for the next few months and should set his own course, as FDR would when he took office.

Hoover tried again in December, attempting to interest FDR in appointing a delegation to a World Economic Conference in London. Roosevelt demurred, and Hoover struck back by releasing the telegrams between the two men, hoping to make Roosevelt look bad in the press.

There were deeper issues than just public relations. As 1932 was drawing to a close, the political situation in Europe was deteriorating rapidly, with the Nazis gaining in influence. FDR wanted to discuss foreign policy, and Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, wanted to discuss it with him. The problem was that Hoover didn’t want the exchange of information to take place, and, despite all of Stimson’s requests, even to Hoover’s patriotism and sense of duty, he refused. Finally, a telegram to Hoover from Walter Edge, the Ambassador to France, broke the impasse by conveying Edge’s threat to resign unless talks were permitted. Word was sent to Roosevelt to ask Hoover respectfully for the meeting, giving the President the opportunity to gracefully agree.

On February 15, 1933, matters took a darker turn, as an assassin, Giuseppe Zangara, fired at Roosevelt, who was sitting in an open limo with Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. A woman in the crowd grabbed Zangara’s hand just before he shot. He missed FDR, but fatally wounded Cermak.

Hoover was shaken by this, and quickly telegraphed FDR his concern, but he was not done with legacy-building. On February 18, he hand-wrote a long personal missive to FDR and had it delivered to his hotel in New York. The letter, perhaps a tad too pushy for the moment, warned Roosevelt of an impending catastrophe which could only be averted by his declaring for, and adopting, whole, Hoover’s policies. FDR sat on his response for 12 days before politely rejecting Hoover’s advice.

Literally days before the Inauguration, the economic situation was growing increasingly dire, and as it did, Hoover’s outreach to FDR grew more intense. The pitch was always the same: Roosevelt must publicly renounce the New Deal in order to instill confidence. While this standoff was taking place, the banking crisis was getting more acute on almost a moment-by-moment basis. Hundreds of banks had already failed, in many cases taking their depositors’ life savings with them. Now thousands more were ready to follow. Hoover had refused to step in, saying that the market would sort out winners and losers, and the strongest banks would survive. Desperation grew for a bank holiday—a nationwide closure for a period of time, so that outflows would cease long enough to determine which banks could survive (with propping up, if necessary) and which would need to fold. The Federal Reserve Board went on record asking Hoover for one, and the old Congress, on its last days, stayed open to process a request from the President. One state after another declared bank holidays or restrictions on withdrawals, but, without a national policy, these efforts weren’t enough. Hoover wouldn’t do it—all he would consent to was to forward a request by Roosevelt and his team, and to send yet another letter to Roosevelt asking him effectively to renounce the New Deal.

FDR wouldn’t bite, and he was right. In just a few days, he would be sworn in, and could set policy (and accept responsibility) as he chose.

Hoover tried one more time. He scheduled a tea the day before the Inauguration, which quickly veered from the ceremonial to the substantive, as Hoover had brought along the Treasury Secretary and Federal Reserve Board Chair for additional leverage. The meeting deteriorated rapidly, as Hoover pressed FDR to agree to make a joint announcement on a bank holiday. It was a fascinating endgame. The meeting broke up with more than a little anger, but Hoover kept at it, phoning FDR well into the night to ask him to agree. In the meantime, the Federal Reserve Board, frustrated with Hoover’s insistence that FDR must sign on, regardless of whether he had any statutory authority, drafted a letter to the President with a proposed proclamation. Hoover wouldn’t sign it. To the end, he wanted the bank-holiday policy to appear to be FDR’s.

Why? What possible reason could Hoover have had to extend the crisis? Stimson believed that Hoover had given in to his anger at being ousted and could not bring himself to do the right thing. It’s also reasonable to think that Hoover utterly despised FDR, who possessed in abundance the political gifts that Hoover never had.

Yet, to just look at the last few moments of a failed Presidency is to miss something larger. What had happened to the humanitarian Hoover of 1917-20, who worked tirelessly to ameliorate the suffering of literally hundreds of millions of Europeans? Where was Hoover in 1929, after the Crash, and in 1930-32, with massive unemployment, collapsing purchasing power, devastated farms? Why did he not act?

There is a tendency now to think of him as true to a cohesive economic philosophy, principled although wrong. But even this falls short: Hoover unquestionably deepened the Depression by doing things that a true free-market capitalist would never have done: He signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which inevitably led other nations to retaliate. Hoover also raised taxes, supported a tight money policy (when money was already desperately scarce), and walked away from the banking crisis. It’s not hard to see an astringent logic to Hoover’s approach—wash out the weaker hands; let the strongest survive; let the system right itself. Yet, there is also a disturbing undercurrent of the scold in Hoover—he’s the type who thought a lecture, a cold bath, and going to sleep without supper brought out the spine in a man. It was not just the transition, his dislike of FDR, and his bitterness at losing. The uncomfortable conclusion one can draw is that Hoover didn’t act in 1933 for the same reasons he didn’t act in 1930: because he didn’t want to, and, as President, he had the luxury of compelling his country to endure his particularized philosophical and personal morality.

The political historian Richard Neustadt wrote that “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” At this fraught moment in American life, the public was persuaded by Roosevelt. His extraordinary gift for communication, for speaking in a language that was both intimate, yet conveyed seriousness, was something that Greatest Generation people would remember more than a half-century later. Above all, Roosevelt wouldn’t just speak, he would act. His team would relentlessly experiment, sometimes hitting, often missing, but with a purposefulness from which the country drew strength. The public found the choice between the two men easy to make.

On March 4, 1933, literally just hours after his last call to FDR to convince him of the error of his ways, Hoover joined Roosevelt in an open car as it made its way to what should be the last stop of all Presidential transitions, the podium at the Capitol. There, in a moment of political grace, the outgoing President is given the opportunity to remind us of the gesture of George Washington, and publicly and voluntarily yield to his successor. In this final act, Herbert Hoover played his part. Franklin Roosevelt then rose, and rose to the occasion, delivering an Inaugural Address punctuated by a single phrase: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The 100,000 in attendance cheered him, and the hope that he brought.

Special thanks to fellow @3QD author Bill Murray, who sent me Professor Eric Rauchway’s “Winter War” after reading my piece on FDR’s Fala Speech. He rekindled an interest in Presidential transitions, and particularly this one, with its unique intellectual and political struggle between winner and loser.

A Tale of Three Transitions: Part II, Hoover To FDR first appeared on Monday, January 4, 2021 at

You can follow Syncopated Politics on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, February 1, 2021

A Tale of Three Transitions: Part I, Buchanan to Lincoln

By Michael Liss:

Editors Note:  This is part 1 of a series of three on Presidential Transitions.  It is followed by a second on Hoover to FDR, and the last is Trump to Biden.   

November 6, 1860. Perhaps the worst day in James Buchanan’s political life. His fears, his sympathies and antipathies, the judgment of the public upon an entire career, all converge into a horrible realty. Abraham Lincoln, of the “Black Republican Party,” has been elected President of the United States.  

Into Buchanan’s hands falls the most treacherous transition any President has had to navigate. The country is about to split apart. For months, Southerners in Congress, in their State Houses, in newspapers ranging from the large-circulation influential dailies to small-town broadsheets, had been warning everyone who cared to listen that they would not abide an election result they felt was an existential threat to their Peculiar Institution. Lincoln, despite what we now consider to be his notably conservative approach to slavery, was that threat. 

The task is made more excruciating because the transition, at that time, was longer—not the January 20th date we expect, but March 4th. Four long months until Lincoln’s Inauguration. Thirteen months between the end of the regular session of the outgoing Congress and the first scheduled session of the incoming one, unless the President calls for a Special Session. Each day, the speeches become more radical, the threats blunter. Committees are formed in many states to consider secession. By December 20, South Carolina leaves the Union. It is followed in short order by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and, on February 1, 1861, Texas. The Upper South (Tennessee, North Carolina, and all-important Virginia) holds back, as does Arkansas. Unionist sentiment is strong enough to keep them from bolting, but the cost of their loyalty is that nothing aggressive be done by Washington to bring back the seceding states. In reality, that means an acceptance of secession for those that cannot be wooed back. 

Buchanan is not the man for the job.

Nearing 70, ill, perceived as both politically and morally weak, rumored to be behind the unpopular Dred Scott decision, he is reviled in much of the North as a Doughface who allowed himself to be ruled by the Southerners in his Cabinet, and despised in the South for his querulousness. That he was not on the ballot (he had pledged himself to one term in his Inaugural Address) merely spared him the likely humiliation of being decisively rejected by the electorate.

Be that as it may, Buchanan is also still the President of the United States, with a Washington newspaper (the Washington Constitution) to act as house organ, patronage to distribute, policies that could reward or punish, and, most importantly, control over the Army and Navy. Would he use his powers to keep the Union alive?

Where does Lincoln fit in as President-elect? What is fascinating about this period is that, while Lincoln is an essential figure, even a precipitating one, he is also a mostly quiet actor. The custom of the day is for candidates and the newly elected (but not yet seated) to maintain a dignified silence. Lincoln largely sticks to that, even when asked to offer either soothing words, or tougher ones. He is convinced that his policies have been well-aired during the campaign, and any statement he makes would be either misinterpreted or hyperbolized. When informed of the many efforts made by well-meaning men of both regions and all parties to find some compromise short of war, his attitude is more one of acceptance than of encouragement. He would offer the South the assurances he had always offered, but never bargain away what he, and the Republican Party, had just won.

That leaves the field to the primary actors of this period, Buchanan and the Cabinet members he relies on, the Fire-Eaters in the South who crave an independent nation, and an ever-shifting group of men of various political persuasions and even motivations, who desperately search for some way out of the present crisis.

There were really four phases to Buchanan’s approach; the first pre-election, the last three governing his conduct as President. 

His pre-election choices may very well have increased the odds of the very disaster he was facing. Buchanan did not support his fellow Democrat, Steven Douglas. The two men disliked each other, having been rivals for the nomination before, and Douglas’s advocacy of Popular Sovereignty made him unpopular among slaveholders and the Doughfaces who voted with them. There was a potent internal conflict going on inside the Party that mirrored the one going on in the nation at large. While there were many issues driving North and South apart—tariffs, internal improvements, the value (or superiority) of an agrarian lifestyle over sheer economic growth—only slavery packed the emotional heft that would lead men to take up arms.

In June of 1860, at the Democratic Convention in Baltimore, these conflicts came to a head.  Southern Democrats would not accept a Douglas nomination, and, encouraged by Buchanan and egged on by the Fire-Eaters, many bolted, set up a rival convention, and nominated Vice-President John Breckinridge. As if three parties were not enough, a fourth, the compromise-inclined Constitutional Union Party then emerged, and nominated Tennessee Senator John Bell.  

It was soon realized that this split would likely be fatal to the South’s chances, as Bell would draw off support in the upper South and Border states. There were discussions between the Breckinridge and Bell camps and outreach to Douglas to combine forces, but that would have required Douglas to withdraw, and, quite understandably, he was unwilling to do that, so the talks fell apart.

We can speculate about what a two-man race might have looked like, but it should not be assumed Lincoln would have lost. In nearly sweeping the North, he actually took enough states by absolute majorities to win the Electoral College. Whatever the outgoing President may have wished for, the prize was Lincoln’s, and cleanly won.

Buchanan was faced with a critical decision—accept Lincoln’s win and plunge into trying to ameliorate the damage, or remain passive and resentful. His first problem was to ascertain reality. In this chaotic time, few people were able to ignore the noise and gain a clear-eyed view of what public opinion really was. Hindsight tells us that both sides sorely underestimated the willpower and ability of the other. 

Buchanan meets with his Cabinet for the first time on November 9, and there the battle lines are clearly drawn. His Secretary of the Treasury is Howell Cobb of Georgia, former Speaker of the House, and future President of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States. Secretary of the Interior is Jacob Thompson, who, while still in the Cabinet, is soon to be appointed by the state of Mississippi as a “secession commissioner” to North Carolina, charged with convincing that state to secede. Secretary of War John Floyd, is a former Governor of Virginia, later accused by Grant in his memoirs of scattering the Army to places where they could be more easily captured, and redistributing military supplies from Northern locations to the South. In this phase of Buchanan’s response, it is clear he is more influenced by Southerners inside the Cabinet and out. Buchanan is, in a sense, a Unionist, but his policy, at least at this point, is one of appeasement and at least tacit acceptance of secession. Cobb remains in the Cabinet until December 6, Floyd resigns December 29, and, astoundingly, Thompson is not forced to resign until January 8, 1861. 

Buchanan proposes a national convention of the States, as authorized by Article V of the Constitution. There, he suggests, a compromise could be worked out to satisfy the South, and, if the South is not sufficiently appeased, it would be justified in separating. Reaction to this is mixed—Lewis Cass of Michigan, then Secretary of State, and Jeremiah Black of Pennsylvania, (then Attorney General, later Secretary of State) approve of the idea, so long as it is coupled with a willingness to enforce federal law; Cobb and Floyd refuse to commit; while Thompson and Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey of Connecticut support it.

November 10, the Cabinet meets again, and here is where the power of Southern members exerts itself. Buchanan has been working on a state paper of sorts, combining three concepts: acceptance of Lincoln’s election by the South, rejection of secession, and the implication that some sort of federal force might be necessary to enforce basic law, such as the defense of army posts/forts and collection of tariffs. The Southern members argue violently against it, and Buchanan, unfortunately, withdraws it.

It is important to realize what a critical turning point this is. What Buchanan is proposing is the minimum of what any President should insist on. There is no right of secession in the Constitution—it is not a transitory, voluntary compact where any state may leave if it’s unhappy with an election result or even just a law. Certainly, a seceding state has no right to use force against federal property and expect no response. For the Southerners to insist on such a course should have required their immediate resignations, yet none is offered and Buchanan doesn’t demand them. It is a critical early failure of leadership, and one that has broad ramifications. 

What Buchanan does do is a lot of nothing. He doesn’t reorganize his Cabinet, and he doesn’t push for a national convention. One can understand his fears in ejecting the Southerners and possibly further inflaming the Fire-Eaters, but what he fails to grasp is that they are likely beyond appeasement. By retaining them, by accepting the reality of secession and allowing them to influence policy to the nation’s detriment, he is broadcasting this weakness.

In light of this position, just how successful could a national convention be? The forces of Unionism and the interests of the North (even without taking into account that of the electorate that had just picked Lincoln) would have nothing left with which to bargain. The abstract concept of “Union” holds much less sway than many (including Lincoln) believe. You need at least a “whiff of grapeshot” to be taken seriously. The result is no national convention, and not the slightest hint of Southern acquiescence. 

A month after Lincoln’s election, Buchanan, and the country, continue to drift toward oblivion. For some bizarre reason, the Administration’s newspaper, the Constitution, continue to publish wildly inflammatory and disloyal articles and editorials. Still, even with them, Buchanan’s timorousness manifests itself in paralysis. It is not until Christmas that he informs the editor he is withdrawing support.   

What is Buchanan doing all this time, besides wringing his hands? Not following the advice of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, who suggests reinforcing federal facilities in several Southern states. Not taking a firmer hand with his Southern advisers. Not putting the prestige of the President’s office behind a national convention. Instead, he continues to work on his state paper, thinking that perhaps words would help.  In mid-November, he turns that work over to his able Attorney General, Jeremiah Black. Black’s draft, however, is continually watered down to meet the objections from the Southerners (and Buchanan) until it is ready. The end product only goes so far as to say there is no right of secession. Beyond that, it kneecaps itself by saying that, if all federal officeholders in a seceding state refused to obey the law, there is no explicit Constitutional power in Congress (or in the Executive) to compel them to obey. Any attempt to do so, in effect, would be an act of war by the federal government on the seceding state. 

This construct is soon tested in South Carolina (it’s always South Carolina). Despite continual entreaties to Buchanan to reinforce the forts around Charleston Harbor, he remains too concerned that firmness would ruffle feelings. He focuses on his annual Address to Congress, while the South Carolinians prepare to take the forts. Almost daily arguments break out in the White House about how to respond, with Buchanan seemingly open to whomever is the last person to make an argument. In the meantime, Floyd is communicating privately with South Carolina Governor Gist, informing him of Buchanan’s plans and reassuring him the forts will not be reinforced. Buchanan, of course, does nothing besides fret and polish his language. In a moment of extreme historical irony, he invites Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis to view his draft and suggest changes. 

The Address is completed by December 2nd. Inside the Cabinet, the Union men are losing issue after issue. Lewis Cass is arguing the forts have to be maintained. Buchanan brushes him off (Cass is later to resign over this). Black asserts that, if Buchanan cannot support the offensive use of force to defend the forts, he must at least assert that the soldiers there have a right to defend themselves. Black also insists that, should a state secede, Congress has the power to take “necessary and proper” actions to deal with it. Buchanan turns him down on both.

The final Message to Congress is a monument to bad governing. Buchanan does agree that there is no right to secede, but, on point after point, he sides with Southern interests. In an extraordinarily polarized era, Congress (which still includes the vast majority of Congressmen and Senators from soon-to-secede states) finds much to hate. It’s a contradictory paper, asserting certain federal rights, but insisting that the government, and particularly the Executive Branch, has no power to enforce those rights—a quintessentially Buchanan position. 

There is more. Buchanan can’t rise to the occasion. He barely gets past his opening before launching into a denunciation of the North. “The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects.” He praises the Dred Scott decision, and goes on to offer what compromises he believes essential for the North to make to woo the South back, if it will come back. You would be hard-pressed to find a single balanced, constructive moment in all 6600+ words of it. 

Whatever this is, it is not leadership, and it is not Presidential. Buchanan just doesn’t have it in him. He punts the responsibility to Congress, yet advises that it, too, has little authority to act. Congress, hopelessly divided, and without Executive Power, can do nothing substantive. 

The stalemate only begins to break when Southern politicians decide to return home. With Cobb, Floyd and Thompson’s departure, Buchanan’s Cabinet gains new spine, but the two months lost are critical. It’s not one state anymore, but seven, and by February 4, 1861, they are already forming a government. Buchanan’s window for action to resolve the matter without violence is almost certainly closed. By the time Lincoln is Inaugurated, General Scott, and Secretary of War Holt must arrange for guns to line Pennsylvania Avenue and cross streets placed under guard. 

Each incoming President steps into the shoes of the one who is leaving. That places an enormous burden on the outgoing one; they must be caretakers in the best sense of the word—they owe it to their successors, and the American people, to leave as strong a country as they can. History’s verdict on how James Buchanan discharged that particular duty has been harsh, but well-earned.  

The original of Buchanan to Lincoln was published on on December 7, 2020.  You can find it at

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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The 2020 Annual Ditty: The Donald

We Are Glad 

(with profuse apologies to Shakespeare and King Henry V)

We are sad The Donald is so unpleasant with us;

His presence a double bogey we won’t say thanks for:

When we marched our voters to the polls,

We did, perchance, escape the sand, take the match

And strike his bilious frown as just the hazard.

Told him he hath offended both friend and stranger

Packed all the courts so rule of law will be disturb'd

Ah, Censorious faces. Now we understand him well,

How he lorded o'er us and denied his wilder days,

Admitting not what sore use he made of them.

We ne’re before deeply valued this poor seat of POTUS;

And therefore, in ’16 took the chance, and gave ourselves

To trust in process; as 'tis ever common

That men are elevated when in The People’s House.

But tell the Donald we will keep our States,

We won them true and will spurn his tweetings

We need not rouse ourselves so chance begins anew

Or plod like duffers unable to make the shot  

Yea, show the Donald bold to look on us.

And tell the putrid prince this mock of his

Hath turn'd his hopes to rubble; and his soul

Be held sore charged for his wasteful vengeance

That shall fly with them: for many a thousand victims

Shall this his mock mock out of dear husbands and wives;

Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;

And even some yet ungotten and unborn

That shall have cause to curse the Donald's scorn.

But this lies all within the Founders’ will,

To whom we do appeal; and in whose name

Tell you the Donald, we are coming on,

To cleanse the ground as we may and to put forth

A rightful hand in a well-hallow'd cause.

So get you now to Pence, and tell the Donald

His jest will savor those but of shallow wit,

When thousands jeer more than did laugh at it.

We give you now safe conduct. Convey it well.

Let's hope for a better 2021