Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Consummately Corrupt Election of 1876

By Michael Liss  (October 12, 2020,

There are times where we are simply unable to surpass our elders. 

“Corrupt” doesn’t capture it. Neither does any other epithet or adjective or modifier you care to couple with corrupt. When it came to ballot stuffing, voter suppression, intimidation, bribes, and just garden variety mendacity, the Election of 1876 had it all.

In some respects, this all makes perfect sense. In 1876, America is seething. It is the last year of the (impressively corrupt) Grant Administration, early in the Gilded Age, where the buying and selling of virtually everything is more a question of price than right or wrong. Reconstruction has been a mess: eight of the former Confederate States have thrown off their “Carpetbagger” governments and are now controlled by “Redeemers,” the same old folks that seceded from the Union after Lincoln was elected. The substantive meaning of the 14th and 15th Amendments as they relate to former slaves has evaporated in most places. There is xenophobia and anti-Catholic agitation and the continued threat of violence. And there is a dawning realization that the two-party system no longer sorts itself out with consistency when addressing the growing divide between the rich and poor, labor and capital, industrialized vs. agrarian, hard money vs. soft, lavish spending on internal improvements vs. frugality, and so on. It is still possible for Republicans to ”wave the bloody shirt” and recall the Civil War, but a surprising number of former adversaries are finding common interests that seem to supersede allegiance to whatever uniforms they previously wore. Democrats have been shut out of the Presidency since James Buchanan, but, in 1874, at the height of the recession caused by the Panic of 1873, they rode a Blue Wave to control of the House. Is 1876 the year they can break the Republicans’ iron lock, especially with federal troops still propping up Reconstructionist governments in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana?

It is November 8, 1876, the morning after Election Day. In this pre-exit-poll, pre-electronic-tabulation era, while the results are still trickling in, it looks like the Democrats have finally taken the Presidency. The extraordinarily dull Samuel J. Tilden, the present (and future) Governor of New York, not only has a lead of 300,000 in the popular vote, but also at least 184 Electoral Votes, just one short of a win. Rutherford B. Hayes, the present Governor of Ohio (and no live wire himself), has no more than 165. Three States are quite close—Florida (of course), which is leaning toward Tilden, South Carolina, with a slight margin for Hayes, and Louisiana, with a significant margin for Tilden. In a fourth, Oregon, a Republican Elector has turned out to be ineligible, and the Democratic Governor claims the right to replace him (with a Democrat). Twenty Electoral Votes out there, and all Tilden needs is one.

The Hayes people are initially depressed. If the reported margins are correct, if either Louisiana or Florida go to Tilden, then the game is over. It is General Dan Sickles who first grasps that, if the Pacific-rim States come in for Hayes, and those three wayward Southern States can be swung in his direction, and whatever bizarre thing that is happening in Oregon can be averted, than Hayes would hit 185 and win the White House.

Sickles might have been one of the most colorful personalities 19th Century America produced (and there was a lot of competition for that crown). Among his many notable accomplishments were leading a heroic, if ill-chosen, stand at Gettysburg (where he lost a leg), serving in the House of Representatives and as Minister to Spain, and, my personal favorite, being the first person in the United States acquitted of murder by reason of temporary insanity. Sickles had accosted Phillip Barton Key II, nephew of Francis Scott Key and then U.S. Attorney, across the street from the White House, and shot him dead for sleeping with Sickles’ (much younger) wife. After a dramatic trial, he was set free.

Fortunately, that little dalliance with unreality was past, leaving Sickles ready for the moment. He quickly roused other Republican powers, including Zachariah Chandler, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee (who apparently had fortified himself with a substantial quantity of spirits the evening before, and was not entirely coherent). These men contacted Republican elements in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana (all three still under federal control as part of Reconstruction, with “Carpetbagger” governments), plus Nevada and Oregon, and told them all to hold fast. The Cavalry might still be coming.

One of the Republicans’ real vulnerabilities in this fight (beyond the fact that Tilden had a sizable lead in Louisiana) was that they had been absolutely pulverized in the 1874 Midterm Elections. The loss of the House was critical, since the House was where all contested Elections were supposed to end. So it had been in 1824, when John Quincy Adams bested Andrew Jackson with some assistance from fellow candidate Henry Clay. So it would be in 1876, if the Republicans weren’t careful. The pesky 12th Amendment clearly said so. Hayes needed to get to 185.

Nowadays, the two parties send platoons of lawyers to dispute votes, but, in those days, lawyers were considered too scrupulous, so a collection of distinguished worthies (Civil War officers, men of means, newspaper editors, lobbyists, men of even more means) were dispatched to the contested States. These folks were called, apparently without irony, “visiting statesmen.” The visiting statesmen’s job was to twist (or massage) enough arms so that “returning boards” (which had the actual authority to decide what the exact tallies were) would be impressed enough with the justice of the candidate’s cause to display the appropriate amount of vision.

It was Hayes who needed serendipity, but, as was the custom of the day, neither candidate acted as a leadership voice in the argument. That would be considered unseemly, as personal campaigning was. Electioneering (and “influencing”) was a team sport, and, in 1876, the Republicans had the better team. They also had Grant’s troops to protect returning boards should those returning boards make the “correct” (but quite possibly unpopular) decision.

First, to the job at hand: securing the Electoral Votes of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana.

South Carolina was the putatively the easiest—the unofficial count had Hayes up by between 600 and 1000 votes, but Democrats seemed to have won both the Governorship and control of the State Legislature. That wouldn’t do, so the five-man, all-Republican, South Carolina returning board got creative, and, on November 22, invalidated all (as in, “all”) the votes from two Democratic counties, Edgefield and Laurens. That both confirmed Hayes’ State-wide lead and managed to flip back the State Legislature. Then, the Republicans in the Legislature refused to accept the newly elected (and returning-board-rejected) Democrats from Edgefield and Laurens, and declared Daniel Chamberlain the winner of the Governor’s race. Angry Democrats then walked and set up a rival government (yes, a rival government) under Wade Hampton, a former Confederate General. This didn’t solve Hayes’ problem completely, as both parties would later send their slates of electors to Washington, but, since he had won the preliminary tally, it seemed sufficient.

Next, to Louisiana, and here’s where things were very dicey. Tilden held a substantial lead—roughly 6,300 votes, difficult simply to wave a wand at unless the person holding the wand (at that point, James Madison Wells, former Governor and then head of the returning board) was sufficiently pliant. Wells was particularly fond of money, and money was available in return for flexibility. On December 5, in a move that showed flexibility to the point of double-jointedness, the returning board tossed out enough votes to turn Tilden’s 6,300 vote edge into a Hayes margin of more than 5,000. In the same breath, it also flipped back the State Legislature. Just as in South Carolina, angry Democrats set up a rival government. As unfair as a net exchange of nearly 12,000 might seem to the objective eye, the well-meaning Hayes was convinced by his friends that the original Tilden (and Democratic) edge was the result of the Democrats having terrorized black voters, and so justice was done.

On to Florida. There, Hayes trailed by 94 votes, and, again, Democrats seemed to have won both the State Governorship and State Legislature. But Florida was ground zero for the more flamboyant forms of cheating—multiple voting, the odd dead person, stuffing some ballot boxes, “misplacing” others, even reports of Democratic ballots printed with Republican symbols to fool illiterate voters (in 1870, 20 percent of the total population was illiterate, 80 percent of former slaves). So there was every reason to believe that Tilden’s edge might not have been entirely earned. Of course, the Republicans did some of the same things leading General Lew Wallace, a Hayes visiting statesman and later the author of Ben Hur, to report back that he couldn’t tell which side was worse. Once again, Florida’s returning board (controlled by Republicans) found votes to flip (a net of about 1,000), and there went the State to Hayes.

Those three states gave Hayes 185 Electoral Votes, and the victory, if anyone would accept it. Except, not quite yet. Oregon provided the Democrats a last toe-hold, and they gripped it hard. In Oregon, Hayes clearly carried the popular vote, but one of his Electors was a federal employee, which was clearly prohibited by the 12th Amendment. Presumably, he would simply be replaced by another Republican—except that Oregon’s Governor (the colorfully named La Fayette Grover) was a Democrat, and, at the behest of DNC Chairman Abram S. Hewitt (also known as the Father of the New York City Subway System), he picked the replacement—a Democrat.

Under the 12th Amendment, all States needed to certify their Electoral Votes and send them on to Washington to be “counted” by December 6. Thirty-four of those States complied. Our four got creative—Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana sending completely rival slates, and Oregon with one slate having the all-Republican Electors, a second with one Democratic Elector.

Now it was time for the lawyers, because the two sides immediately disagreed on what the 12th Amendment actually meant. It says the “President of the Senate” (usually, the sitting Vice-President, unless he has passed away) shall “count” the votes sent in by the States in the presence of the House and Senate. No one was exactly sure what that meant, down even to the word “count.” Hayes, given that the Republicans still controlled the Senate, insisted that “count” meant, in effect, “decide,” and that the “counting” should be done by then President Pro Tem of the Senate, Thomas Ferry of Michigan (unsurprisingly, a Republican), standing in for the deceased Henry Wilson. Democrats, needless to say, disagreed, and said the “counting” should be done by either throwing it to the House (which they controlled), or, at the very least, to both Chambers, and “counting” should also include Hewitt’s suggestion, which was to reexamine how the returning boards made their decisions. One thing was certain: as long as Democrats controlled the House, no Republican Senator was going to decide, on his own, who got to be the next President.

The two sides squared off. Interestingly enough, although Hayes was insistent that the only “counting” could be done by Ferry (to his mind both the correct and winning decision), in those days, there was still interest in preserving Congressional prerogatives, and many of Hayes’ fellow Republicans pushed back.

The old adage that politics makes for strange bedfellows began to come into play. Not every Republican was with Hayes, and not every Democrat with Tilden. Both local and regional interests began to chip away at party discipline.

Hayes’ most serious individual defection was Roscoe Conkling, a powerhouse in New York, who insisted on controlling the State’s patronage, something to which Hayes would not accede. Some Southern Republicans were more wary of a Hayes Presidency than a Tilden one, as Hayes had expressed warm, conciliatory thoughts toward the South (although he had not openly made any hard commitments). These Southern Republican Senators worried about being isolated in a region dominated by hostile Democrats.

As for Tilden, not only did his cold-fish personality and detachment fail to inspire loyalty, there were also legitimate concerns coming from Southern Democrats. They wondered if it was better to cut a deal with Hayes—support in return for a hard commitment to Home Rule, getting rid of the troops, the Carpetbaggers, and (more quietly) any substantive rights for former slaves. With those in place, the South would be solidly Democratic in the span of a few years.

Not to be ignored were economic interests. Business wanted markets, infrastructure spending, and taxpayer favors. The most potent of the businesses were the railroads, already the beneficiaries of insanely rich subsidies. Their lobbying forces, led by Thomas A. Scott, the President of both the Pennsylvania and the Texas and Pacific Railroads, had their hands everywhere, using a variety of inducements to gain another round of largess. They were able to frame this as a regional issue for Southern politicians—the North had received the lion’s share of internal improvement money, and the South needed parity to have a chance to grow. But also lobbying was Scott’s sworn enemy, Collis P. Huntington of the Southern Pacific, who proposed to build West to East, without subsidies. Unsurprisingly, there was considerable resistance amongst Northern politicians of both parties to a big new round of grants, particularly to the South. The importance of railroad influence on the final election result has been debated by historians (I recommend C. Vann Woodward’s Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction), but there is little doubt the railroads swung a big stick.

What the power brokers and regional interests were really seeking was more about leverage and less about party. Tilden’s ascetic campaign (he ran mostly on Reform in a time of economic depression) enthused few, so they looked to Hayes for clear commitments that their needs would be served.

Hayes wasn’t especially good at cutting deals. He still believed he was absolutely entitled to the win, without further ado, and he had talked himself into believing that “counting” simply meant “counting by my loyalist who will accept only results favorable to me.” That being said, he was also willing to allow close associates like John Sherman (then Senator from Ohio, later Hayes’ Secretary of the Treasury, and McKinley’s Secretary of State) to represent that they understood his private thoughts, while Hayes, himself, didn’t have to commit to anything.

All this jockeying back and forth was taking time off the calendar. It wasn’t so much that Tilden was growing stronger, as that the internal cross-currents were still being negotiated. In mid-December, the parties managed an ingenious, but highly questionable solution. The two sides decided to create a committee of 15, an “Electoral Commission” consisting of five members of the House, five of the Senate, and five Supreme Court Justices—in all, seven Democrats, seven Republicans, the 15th, a Supreme Court Justice considered “neutral.” In our politicized time, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a recipe for rank partisanship, but the two sides actually had someone in mind for that 15th slot—Justice David Davis, Lincoln’s friend and former campaign manager, who had sat on the Court for nearly 15 years, and was considered fair-minded. In effect, the Electoral Commission really consisted of one man—David Davis. What was amazing was that enough people had confidence in his principles that they would place their (political) fate in his hands.

Ah, best laid plans. Before Davis could actually assume his duties, the Democratically controlled State Legislature of Illinois (possibly induced by Tilden’s thoroughly corrupt nephew) selected him to be their Senator, presumably also thinking that this might influence his decisions on the Commission. To modern ears, this sounds completely crazy: Who would step down from a lifetime appointment on SCOTUS to take a Senate seat—particularly in an era in which the State Legislatures, and not the voters, selected Senators? But Davis was an ambitious man who had previously expressed interest in being President, and, on January 25, he accepted.

Best laid plans, Part II. Davis really was honorable (if a bit of a lifetime operator) and promptly resigned from the Commission, because he didn’t want the implication he’d been bought. The Illinois Democrats had shot themselves, their Party, and Tilden in the foot. With Davis out, what the Electoral Commission got was a consistent eighth Republican vote, that of Justice Joseph P. Bradley. Why Democrats went along with this is unclear—likely they thought he was the best of a bad lot, given his previous decision on the unpopular-in-the South Enforcement Act, but it was Bradley who subsequently came in for most of the blame (including the unproven but tantalizing allegation that he changed his mind as to how to vote at the very last moment, under some influence).

February 1, 1877. It began. A joint session of Congress heard the reading of each State’s returns, until it got to Florida. The conflict was joined, the dispute was referred to the newly created Commission, and the Joint Session adjourned.

Immediately, the critical question was upon them. Should the Commission “go behind the vote” (as Hewitt had wanted and planned for)? More specifically, could (and should) they investigate whether the final vote totals as certified by Florida, in particular, and, by extension, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oregon, did in fact reflect the popular will? In many respects, this was not only a threshold question, but a decisive one.

In fairness, this was not easy. No one, not even the fiercest partisan, seriously believed that Florida, or any of the disputed election tallies, was accurate. What the Commission’s decision on this point would come down to was, in essence, an irrevocable choice to favor slates certified by the then Republican-controlled States, and not those proposed by Democrats. This was, in effect, Hayes’ position from the beginning—or, to put it in less delicate terms, the side with the power to cheat last would win. Complicating this was that the Florida Supreme Court had already weighed in on December 14, saying that the Democrats had indeed been defrauded, and permitting Democrats to take control of the State government on January 1, 1877. But the Commission didn’t feel itself bound by the State court as it related to the counting of Electoral Votes, and it bought the argument of Republicans that a recanvass was essentially impossible, particularly given how little time was left to Inauguration Day (March 4, 1877). With that, on February 9, by an 8-7 decision, with Bradley in the majority, Florida went Hayes.

Anyone reading the tea leaves could have predicted what came next, and both candidates did. Hayes started planning his Cabinet and sketching out his policies. Tilden turned his attention to a European trip. Democrats were furious, but they were also basically powerless. Having agreed to let the Electoral Commission resolve the election, and having acceded to Bradley’s selection, they knew they were being cheated and also understood that, beyond a miracle in Louisiana, all they had left were procedural moves.

Democrats played the card they had—the threat of a filibuster, and delay. They wanted something, most particularly Home Rule and the end of Carpetbagger governance where it still existed. Railroad money was also being fire-hosed about, and roughly three dozen Democrats pushed for subsidies for the Texas and Pacific plan.

February 12, Louisiana, perhaps the last levee. In hindsight, it’s hard to say why the Commission didn’t take a harder look at the State, given the extent of what was clearly fraud, and being mindful of the shift of what amounted to about eight percent of the entire vote. But the game had been decided when the Committee refused to go behind the votes, and, with that construct, the Democrats’ Louisiana case was, in form and substance, identical to that of Florida…and just as hopeless. On February 16, the Commission went 8-7 for Hayes.

Hayes really started measuring the drapes. He now was faced with a new round of questions—how free a hand would he give the Redeemers in the South, when would all the troops be withdrawn, and what would happen to the rights of the former slaves? Also emerging, the growing insistence of the railroad forces, who were nominally backing Hayes as the perceived winner, for concrete promises on their deliverables.

Hayes continued to be coy. He seemed to be promising a great deal of “friendship” and “looking kindly on” to virtually everyone, but no one could pin him down. It’s hard to say whether it was out of principle or calculation, but it was shrewd politics, with his Inauguration seemingly assured.

Southern Democrats weren’t quite done. They wanted concessions, particularly in Louisiana and South Carolina, where Home Rule also meant to them the recognition of Democratic Governors Francis T. Nicholls and Wade Hampton. This was a tough pill for Hayes and the Republicans to swallow, especially since both Gov. Stephen B. Packard of Louisiana and Gov. Daniel H. Chamberlain of South Carolina were doing their utmost to keep their States Republican, even at the risk of their personal safety.

There was an intellectual point as well, one that went to the legitimacy of the Hayes Presidency. Packard and Chamberlain were the beneficiaries of the same vote-switching scheme as Hayes. If his claim to office was based on those tallies, why wasn’t theirs?

More dissonance, this time from an unexpected source. Southern Republicans, again angry about Hayes’ stroking of Southern conservatives, and fearful of being cut loose to Democrats’ tender mercies, threatened to bolt to Tilden if they weren’t mollified with some tangible goodies, like Cabinet positions. They were made some vague promises and then whipped in the Senate vote on the Louisiana decision on February 19.

Everyone was running out of time. Democrats had only the threat of not ratifying the Commission’s decisions, and only if they could hold through a filibuster. They realized the public would not be happy about the chaos that would occur on March 4 if there were no President, and they had absolutely no viable path to winning. The best they could do was negotiate around the edges.

Hayes wasn’t the easiest man to negotiate with. The soon-to-be President Elect was now right in the middle of trying to assuage everyone’s fears, while not conceding anything publicly. More anodyne statements without substance emerged from his spokesmen.

February 23, Oregon. Quickly disposed of (and possibly the only fair decision of the four), the Commission gave Hayes all three of Oregon’s Electors.

Then, a last minute gaffe came from an unexpected source. An editorial in the Ohio State Journal, considered very friendly to Hayes, called for Grant to uphold Packard’s Governorship in Louisiana with the use of federal troops. This was exactly what Southerners, who had thought they had extracted a promise of the end of “bayonet rule,” feared. If Hayes was behind this, it was a signal he wasn’t going to deliver. The day after Oregon was decided, fired-up Democrats forced a two day adjournment. They wanted what they thought was promised to them. President Grant then took an interesting step, saying that Louisiana Democratic Governor Nicholls should be entitled to stay in office.

It was time to work something out. Edward Burke, then the personal representative of Louisiana’s Democratic Governor Nicholls, huddled together with Sherman and a few others in Stanley Matthew’s rooms at the Wormley Hotel. Matthews, a future Senator and Supreme Court Justice, had been among those arguing Hayes’ case before the Electoral Commission. Everyone wanted something. Sherman needed to hear from Nicholls that the rights of blacks would be respected in Louisiana (Hayes would have insisted), and that outgoing Governor William Pitt Kellogg’s appointment as Senator would be left untouched (Senate Republicans needed the seat). A great deal of discussion took place between all of the parties, with other interests (including that of the railroad lobby) coming into play. Deals were made, some to which Hayes might not have agreed, like the abandonment of Packard. It’s not clear that any new ground was broken, but sometimes the appearance of activity is as important as the substance.

February 27, the Commission met again, and, again, by the same 8-7 margin, settled South Carolina for Hayes. With that formality, and the deals at Wormley, the stage seemed to be set for the closing act.

But the count did not go well. On February 28, the Democrats were back to filibustering, and forced the House to adjourn without taking action. On March 1, the session resumed with ferocity. Men jumped on desks and shouted at each other and at Speaker Samuel Randall, who ruled against the holdouts time after time. While the back and forth continued, Louisiana’s Democratic Congressmen sent a message to Grant, urging him to withdraw troops from their State immediately. Grant, through his Secretary, showed them a text of a telegram he would send to Republican Governor Packard, stating that he (Grant) would not support Packard’s government, provided that the count continued. William M. Levy of Louisiana rose, was recognized, and announced he had received sufficient assurances from both Grant and friends of Hayes that the new Administration’s policy toward the South would be one of “conciliation.”

The Democrats had played a weak hand well, and, with Levy’s remarks, they essentially read it into the record. The leadership called for a vote, but, even at this last moment, 57 diehards continued to obstruct, and final passage didn’t come until 3:38 a.m. It went to the Senate, and, at 4:10 a.m. on March 2, Hayes finally got his reward.

As March 4 was a Sunday, Hayes was sworn in privately at the White House on March 3, with a public ceremony on Monday March 5. At the same time as his private ceremony was taking place, incensed Democrats, not and never to be reconciled to what had occurred, introduced and passed a resolution declaring Tilden the winner of the 1876 Election. As is often true in politics with public responses to the seamy, it was an empty gesture.

Special thanks to Professor Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College, who was kind enough to point me in the right direction after I received an email from a reader suggesting the 1876 election as a topic.

If you are interested in Rutherford B. Hayes (and the Election of 1876), you may wish to visit the website of his Presidential Library, where there are two excellent pieces—the first, the text of a speech by Michael Holt, and, the second, a chapter of a longer book, Disputed Election, by Ari Hoogenboom. 

The Consummately Corrupt Election of 1876 was first published on October 15, 2020 on

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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

A Joyous Bit of Politics: FDR's Fala Speech

 By Michael Liss

It is March of 1944, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is dying. His physicians, Lieutenant Commander Howard Bruen and Vice-Admiral Ross McIntire, know it, as do a handful of others McIntire brought in. FDR probably knows it as well, no matter how much his doctors may have sugar-coated their findings. He has cardiac insufficiency, arteriosclerosis, congestive heart failure, an enlarged and failing left ventricle, and mitral valve issues. Modern medicine would likely have offered more productive years of life, but, in the era before sophisticated heart surgery, before the development of a heart-lung machine, and with a very limited formulary of drugs, it is just a matter of time, maybe a year at most. 

His decline was obvious. You could see it on his face, in the amount of time he needed to recover from exertion, in the loss of weight. He had undertaken a long sea trip on the USS Baltimore to visit American forces in the Pacific, but spent much of it in his stateroom, resting. An ordinary man of that time would have scaled back, gradually becoming a convalescent. But FDR was no ordinary man, and 1944 no ordinary time. Obviously, the Democratic Party would re-nominate him for an unprecedented fourth term, if he wanted it, but there was deep concern in the family that he would never survive. Eleanor Roosevelt was later quoted as saying, “If Franklin loses, I’ll be personally glad, but worried for the world.”

It was also a time of war-weariness. America was on the offensive, but the going was slow, progress not linear. Germany and Japan were wounded, but by no means anywhere near surrender. The public was unhappy. There had been reluctance to involve ourselves in the first place, and, while few people openly voiced resistance after Pearl Harbor, many of the old isolationists became critics of Roosevelt’s leadership. Republicans, still at an electoral disadvantage after carrying the legacy of Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, nominated Thomas E. Dewey to oppose FDR. Dewey was credible. He had built a national reputation as an incorruptible crusading prosecutor who took on the rackets and convicted Lucky Luciano, then gone on to become New York’s 47th Governor by the time he was 40. This was Dewey’s second chance; he had run for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1940 and been considered a favorite, but his early non-interventionalist stand caused him to lose support as Germany marched through Europe. By 1944, having become more internationalist, he defeated Wendell Wilke (FDR’s victim in 1940) to obtain the nomination. 

Dewey was not a magnetic campaigner: If truth be told, he was more than a little bit of a stuffed shirt, with a routinized method of campaigning calculated down to the minute. His themes were ones he clung to as a prosecutor, things like corruption, mismanagement, and Communists, but Democratic wisemen thought him a serious threat to FDR, especially a weakened FDR. The omens were bad—in the 1942 midterms, with America fully engaged in a war that, at that point, was not going well, the GOP picked up 47 seats in the House and eight in the Senate.

More seriously, Roosevelt’s few extended public appearances gave them little comfort. There was no way to ease him out of the job (and the impact on the public would have been profound), but the possibility of his losing (or being unable to complete his term) had to be on their minds. He gave a particularly poor radio address from the Portland Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington, on August 12, and, quietly, friends and close advisors began to urge him to find a venue to show the old magic. 

A bit of good luck occurred when, in early September, a Republican Congressman, Harold Knutson of Minnesota, accused Roosevelt of having left behind his dog Fala in the Aleutians when on his Pacific trip, and then sent back a ship (and then a plane) to retrieve him, at enormous cost to the taxpayers. Orson Welles, who was then campaigning for FDR, noticed it, and passed on to FDR the suggestion that Knutson’s remarks created an opportunity.  

FDR may have been physically diminished, but his political instincts were still sharp. He decided to give an address to a friendly audience (the Teamsters, who, by Roosevelt’s description, had “big hands” for applauding) on September 23, 1944. What followed was one of the best performances you will ever read or see (I’ve only been able to find a partial video, but even that is worth the time, particularly for the entirely serious demeanor Roosevelt keeps during the entirety of it). You may also find that very little is new in politics, not just in ideas and issues, but in the value of pure talent, which Roosevelt had in abundance. 

Roosevelt on Labor: 

We all know that certain people who make it a practice to depreciate the accomplishments of labor—who even attack labor as unpatriotic—they keep this up usually for three years and six months in a row. But then, for some strange reason they change their tune—every four years—just before election day. When votes are at stake, they suddenly discover that they really love labor and that they are anxious to protect labor from its old friends.

Roosevelt on flip-flopping: 

We have all seen many marvelous stunts in the circus but no performing elephant could turn a hand-spring without falling flat on his back…. What the Republican leaders are now saying in effect is this: ‘Oh, just forget what we used to say, we have changed our minds now—we have been reading the public opinion polls about these things and now we know what the American people want.’

Roosevelt on money in politics: 

But, you know, even those candidates who burst out in election-year affection for social legislation and for labor in general, still think that you ought to be good boys and stay out of politics. And above all, they hate to see any working man or woman contribute a dollar bill to any wicked political party. Of course, it is all right for large financiers and industrialists and monopolists to contribute tens of thousands of dollars—but their solicitude for that dollar which the men and women in the ranks of labor contribute is always very touching.

Roosevelt on voting: 

They are, of course, perfectly willing to let you vote—unless you happen to be a soldier or a sailor overseas, or a merchant seaman carrying the munitions of war. In that case they have made it pretty hard for you to vote at all—for there are some political candidates who think that they may have a chance of election, if only the total vote is small enough.

Roosevelt on blaming the other Party for what your guy did: 

For example, although I rubbed my eyes when I read it, we have been told that it was not a Republican depression, but a Democratic depression from which this Nation was saved in 1933—that this Administration this one today—is responsible for all the suffering and misery that the history books and the American people have always thought had been brought about during the twelve ill-fated years when the Republican party was in power.

Through all of this, his audience cheered and hooted, and he milked it for all he could. But he was saving the choicest cuts for later. He rolled through a fairly prosaic few paragraphs and then went for the jugular, with the timing of a comic genius.

These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself—such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog.

The crowd (by this point thoroughly juiced up, both metaphorically and actually) went nuts, as, I would imagine, did millions at home listening to their radios. I doubt anyone paid much attention to the rest of the speech. Roosevelt had done his job. He was still the same old FDR, suave, virile, witty, tough, ready to fight the Germans, the Japanese, Dewey, and the Republicans all at once. He was still their hero.

The coverage was phenomenal. He got page one in the major dailies, even those who had opposed his running. Republicans foolishly took the bait, starting at the top. Dewey made some tone-deaf remarks about Roosevelt’s joking while our boys were dying overseas and insisted that he would “now campaign all the harder.” It just confirmed many people’s views of him as a stuffed shirt’s stuffed shirt. Paul Porter, who was serving as the DNC’s head of publicity for the 1944 campaign, wrote a memo saying that the race had become one between Roosevelt’s dog and Dewey’s goat. He then allocated a considerable amount of campaign funds to running a radio spot with the recording of the Fala portion of the speech, introduced by the old country song, “They Gotta Quit Kick’n My Dawg Aroun.’”

There is no question the speech changed the dynamic of the race. In an era before 24-hour television cameras, Roosevelt could limit his exposure through to November, with Fala the closing argument. Six weeks later, Roosevelt swept to victory, with an Electoral College margin of 432 to 99. Democrats lost one Senate seat, but picked up 20 in the House. The old man had done it again.

It was, in many respects, the last hurrah. FDR’s health continued to decline, and his evident weakness showed itself both privately and in public. He was a gaunt, hollow-eyed shadow at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, and arguably was taken advantage of by Stalin. On April 12, 1945, after several earlier health crises, he was felled by a massive stroke.  

Fala never quite got over it. At FDR’s private burial, he howled and turned over several times.  He lived until 1952, when his Scotch soul joined Franklin’s and, then again, at the FDR Memorial in Washington, where the two old friends talk of old times, and no one, ever, dares to pick on Fala.

A Joyous Bit of Politics: FDR's Fala Speech was first published on on August 17, 2020. 

Please find us on Twitter @SyncPol 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

How We Choose (In A Pandemic): An Interview With Richard Robb

By Michael Liss

On November 11, 2019, I wrote a review of Willful: How We Choose What We Do (Yale University Press, November 2019), by Richard Robb, Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and CEO of the investment firm Christofferson, Robb & Company.  He was kind enough to let me interview him in our changed times.

Michael Liss: Richard, last fall you published Willful, which introduced a new model of how to think about the way we make choices. Willful reached beyond classical “Rational Choice” to something you called “For-Itself Choice.” I know it is an economist’s job to be able to project into the future, but did you ever anticipate having such a bonanza of opportunities to demonstrate your ideas as that which arose because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Richard Robb: I didn’t foresee COVID-19, Michael, if that’s what you’re suggesting! But yes, the pandemic has given us a “stage”—however ugly—on which to test a variety of ideas, including a few of mine. 

My book was published in November last year, and my hope was that the phrase on which I rest my thesis—“for-itself”—would someday seep into the language. It would have come in handy during the pandemic. For instance, when President Trump, seeking to scoff at those he saw as COVID-wimps, said that we continue to drive cars despite auto accidents, Dr. Fauci called that “a false equivalency.” He could have explained that it’s a false equivalency because the choice of how quickly to de-isolate is for-itself.

Here’s what I mean. Sometimes our choices—as individuals or as a society—involve trade-offs where we can pick what’s best. We rank all possible options on a common scale and choose what best satisfies our preferences in light of our resources. If we think clearly throughout this calculation, we’re exercising what economists describe as rational choice. If we fall prey to biases, like overconfidence in our abilities, then we’ve entered the realm of behavioral economics. Both scenarios fit into what I call “purposeful choice.”
But this can’t be the whole picture. Why? Because there are often times when there’s no comparison or trade-off that we can make. So we choose without regard to whether one option is better or worse than the alternatives. Such a choice is neither rational nor irrational. It stands “for-itself.”

I think the phrase adds analytical value, and has the virtue of being almost self-explanatory. But it will take a while for it to catch on. As far as I can tell, only my wife and children use it right now, and I’m pretty sure they’re humoring me. 

ML: You have pointed out that pretty much all public policy involves trade-offs: setting speed limits on a highway, or regulatory oversight for an industry. These calculations can be both necessary and cold, like literally setting a value on a human life. Given the massive economic cost of extended shutdowns, how do policy-makers decide on a metric of risk? To put it more starkly, what level of fatalities is acceptable per percentage point of GDP? And against what metric are we measuring it? Spanish Flu? Garden-variety Flu? 

RR: Auto safety is purposeful and can be approached via rational choice, even though the stakes are life and death. Motorists choose to take risks every time they go for a drive, and policymakers have to decide on regulations like speed limits. When drivers are in a hurry, they accept a slightly higher risk of dying and of killing others, while policymakers generally follow the “cold” (as you put it) advice of economists: raise the speed limit to the point where the value of the time saved equals the value of the lives lost. And yes, this requires assigning a value to life. 

Economists usually try to infer the value that individuals assign to their own lives from the choices they make, like how much to spend for a better motorcycle helmet that will reduce the probability of death by a small amount. Using this approach, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pegs the “value of a statistical life” at around $9.5 million. This may sound cold-blooded, even repugnant, but policymakers don’t have much choice. When departments of highway safety do their job, one way or another, they commit to an actuarial calculation. 

ML: A few months ago, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said “No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” My first reaction to that was that Patrick was constructing a type of “trolley problem,” volunteering himself and his fellow seniors to be the ones pushed. How would you have analyzed this, both on a personal and policy level?

RR: My book used the trolley problem, originally devised by Philippa Foot, as an example of a pure for-itself life-and-death decision—in contrast to auto safety at the opposite extreme.
In one version of this thought experiment, you’re on a bridge above the tracks of a trolley that’s racing towards five construction workers. The only way to stop the trolley is to throw something heavy in its path. A fat man is standing next to you. You could push him in front of the trolley, killing one person to save five.

What is the right thing to do?

Most people say they wouldn’t push the fat man. I probably wouldn’t either. And if I did push him, I wouldn’t argue that it was morally right to do so. This decision stands for itself.
In pushing, you would kill a particular human being, what Camus called “the man who shaved this morning.” Unless you’ve talked yourself into a radically utilitarian worldview, you can’t compare one individual in the flesh with another, or even with five others. The highway safety problem and the trolley problem may look similar on the surface, but they lie at opposite extremes on a spectrum of action.

So, where does reopening the economy in a time of COVID fit in here? Is reopening subject to a rational cost-benefit analysis like auto safety, or is it for-itself, like the trolley problem? 
I think it’s somewhere in between these extremes, but feels closer to the trolley problem. While some people will have fatal accidents because the speed limit is five miles per hour higher than it might have been, we can’t know in advance who they will be. They are abstract and far away. But we do know who the “fat man” is. If we de-isolate precipitously, we know who’s most likely to die: people with underlying health conditions and the elderly. In short order, we’ll know precisely who has died.

Even in the for-itself realm, cost-benefit calculations can still be useful. If I’m deciding whether to push the fat man, I’d like to know if he’s dying of a terminal illness and whether pushing him will save five people or five hundred. A cost-benefit analysis for reopening the economy is useful in the same way, as long as we don’t become caught up in the pretense that it dictates the right actions according to a scientific formula.

To be sure, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas would be heroic if he were to choose an excruciating death for himself in exchange for the greater good. But that choice has not been offered to him. 

ML: A Texas Republican might very well react differently than a Northeastern Democratic Governor. Given how fractious American political life is, we would expect polarization here, even as to basic facts. You have lived and worked abroad. Compare, say, Japan, where total COVID deaths are under 1000. Are there cultural differences that reflect themselves in how public and private choices are made in times like these? 

RR: In late February, South Korea experienced two weeks of exponential growth in COVID-19 cases, rivaling that of any country. Within a month, its cases were almost down to zero. My son, who lives in Bucheon, South Korea, has told me of the near-universal compliance with social distancing and contact tracing. (An exception was a fringe religious group.) This happened throughout East Asia. As of mid-July, the U.S. had 10,200 cases per million and rising; the hardest-hit East Asian country is the Philippines with 333 per million. Asia’s voluntary compliance is not possible in the U.S. for several reasons. American individualism is traditionally a source of strength, but not at the moment. Americans are less likely to trust authority. President Trump amplified this reflexive skepticism recently by retweeting the views of a Catholic archbishop who’d said that COVID-19 is a “deep-state” plot to undermine his achievements. 

ML: How do the economic calculations during the pandemic apply to individuals? We know that the economically disadvantaged have been disproportionately impacted, and the loss of income can be catastrophic, even down to basic necessities. It seems society has a moral dilemma: We either command these people to stay home, and possibly starve, or, as in the meatpacking industry, we deem them essential and tell them they have to come in, and take real risks.

RR: People losing their income shouldn’t be a moral quandary. The government can make it up to them—after all, we’re a rich country. And to a great extent, that has happened—both here and abroad.

But it’s a shame to squander public resources on bailouts for industries that don’t need them, like airlines or casinos. Let some airlines go bankrupt. The industry won’t vanish and we’ll still be able to fly. Airlines will reemerge from bankruptcy, as they always do. This is not a financial crisis like 2007/2008—financial markets are working just fine—so the Federal Reserve doesn’t need to buy corporate bonds, exchange traded funds and the like.
Let’s not forget, also, that many professional decisions are made for-itself. Healthcare workers have chosen a noble profession. Some may feel pressured to work on the front lines, but many choose it. Work is tied up with identity and has many dimensions—it’s not just a sacrifice of leisure time for money to buy material goods. The choice to rise to this challenge is partially for-itself. This applies not just to medical professionals, but to all essential workers.

ML: There’s something new about this crisis that seems to demand more nuanced decisions. It’s not a car safety measure, or even something like an occupational hazard regulation, where the number of potential injuries and fatalities is comparatively limited. One person, or one group of people, can effectively act as a Typhoid Mary, and we can’t easily identify any specific group and have to impose far broader restrictions. In effect, the vast majority of us are, temporarily at least, the fat man being thrown on the tracks. How do politicians create public policy on the fly that works, get buy-in from the population (because voluntary compliance is critical) and find the “Goldilocks” balance?

RR: Assuming we could measure the value of life and quantify the impact of social distancing on health outcomes, we’d still have to measure the cost of social distancing. The multi-trillion dollar “bailout” is a transfer from taxes paid back to a subset of taxpayers, not a cost. And since GDP was never intended to measure outcomes during a pandemic, any figure that represents “lost GDP” (even if we could estimate it) could be grossly inaccurate. Forgone restaurant meals, for instance, disappear from GDP, while meals prepared at home (net of the cost of ingredients) go uncounted. Any enjoyment during leisure time is omitted, but so are anxieties and the lost “utility” of birthdays celebrated on Zoom. GDP measures the loss of ticket sales on Broadway, but not the stalled careers of actors that might never get back on track. In the spring, I taught classes online to students dispersed around the world, which was better than I expected. GDP counts the tuition paid as output but can’t adjust for students’ lost social experience. 

Even if we could all agree on how to calculate the welfare gains and losses, most of us sense deep down that decisions about COVID-19 differ from those about auto safety. The deaths caused by de-isolating too soon do not have quite the same proximity as that of a man you pushed with your own hands, but they’re uncomfortably close. Whatever the calculation says, individuals and the government that represents them don’t want to let real people die for an abstraction.

In my view, there’s no rule book to guide politicians to the optimal response. In a Western democracy, it has to be a process that involves the consent of the governed. Public policy “on the fly” doesn’t have to feel reckless. When politicians demonstrate leadership and wisdom, like Governor Cuomo of New York State or New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, then a popular buy-in will follow. 

ML: In your book, you talk about altruism. Obviously, in these circumstances, we are seeing both extraordinary acts of selflessness and seriously repugnant behavior. Are you optimistic that we may learn something from all this, and perhaps adjust our values?

RR: I believe people are generally pro-social, by which I mean they usually have an instinctive understanding of what’s good for society and act on it more than serves their narrow self-interest. This is compatible with economic theory, which allows for self-interest to be broadly defined. The satisfaction, or “utility,” that an individual maximizes might depend on inputs like the well-being of others, altruism or adherence to ethical standards.

Most altruistic actions, according to my taxonomy, fall into the purposeful realm, where they can be understood in terms of rational choice. We act to benefit those we care about. The more we care or the lower the cost we incur, the more we do. Voluntarily wearing masks in public is purposeful: we balance the costs against the benefits. Costs are inconvenience (where did I put my mask?), discomfort and fogging up glasses. Benefits are protecting myself against infection, protecting others that I care about, and demonstrating a buy-in to the social contract. The calculation can be rational. And if I overweight small risks, it would be not quite rational but subject to cognitive bias.

Some altruistic gestures, though, are not “optimal” in any sense. Let me give you a personal example. In March, a long-lost former student back in China FedExed me a gift of hard-to-get N95 masks. Why? His altruistic act was random—he can’t lavish this degree of care on everyone he’s ever known who lives in a COVID-19 hot spot, and there’s no special reason to send them to me. But I wouldn’t say my student made a mistake, that if he’d been thinking clearly he’d have allocated those resources more efficiently. We all make for-itself altruistic gestures that we can’t (and shouldn’t have to) explain. Think of the Good Samaritan from the biblical parable. 

Getting those masks was a relatively small matter, of course, although I appreciated it. Others, as you say, are extraordinary. Who can forget Li Wenliang, the doctor in Wuhan who tried to raise the alarm about the coronavirus in the early days of its outbreak. He was muzzled by the authorities and died shortly after. His altruism can be seen in his selflessness and courage.

It’s sort of amazing how cooperative we are as creatures, although there’s no doubt room to improve. We rationally seek to promote the well-being of people we care about, and for many this extends to the whole world and future generations. 

ML: There is a strong undercurrent in American political life of disdain for technical expertise and technocrats. Yet situations like this cry out for them. How do we climb that particular wall when many resent the costs and do not see the benefit, primarily because the benefits are just the absence of infection and don’t necessarily feel “real”? 

RR: In my book Willful, I argue that we don’t just care whether our beliefs hold up against data. As Charles Sanders Peirce explained, we adopt beliefs that are “agreeable to reason,” fit with our other beliefs and are held by authorities that we recognize. Our beliefs have a for-itself element; they constitute our identity and are more than just instruments to help us get ahead. I don’t consider this irrational, but rather essential to being human. We are what we believe in. 

Adherence to social distancing protocols, for instance, goes together with a certain constellation of beliefs. People who voluntarily follow the rules tend to believe that scientific evidence is the highest standard and the system that generates this evidence can be trusted. Others, as you suggest, distrust elites, and won’t follow their advice until they can see the disease spread in their community. 
Once there’s a vaccine, I imagine the two sides will square off in a titanic battle. I reckon it will be worse if the vaccine comes out during a Democratic administration. A few weeks ago, self-described Republicans were asked about their view of the theory that Bill Gates is planning to use a COVID-19 vaccine to plant microchips into billions of people and track their movements. A shocking 44% said they believed the conspiracy theory was true, only 26% said it was false, and 31% said they weren’t sure.

ML: I’d like to talk a little bit about the implications of the social and emotional costs of distancing and the shutdowns. Is this one of those traumatizing events, like the Depression and WWII were for the Greatest Generation, that may influence future behavior for decades to come, and, if so, what are your expectations?

RR: For young people entering the labor market, the evidence suggests that the consequences will be long-lasting. Those who graduated from college during the 1980-81 recession, as I did, tend to have lower earnings than the cohorts that graduated a few years earlier or a few years later. If you begin your career during a recession, it takes longer to establish yourself, and you don’t develop the human capital to “reinvest” to generate more human capital. You never catch up.

Forecasts are tricky, of course, but I don’t think we’ll go back to the pre-pandemic normal, unlike 9/11, which was a trauma with relatively few lasting consequences for most people who were not directly affected. The social and emotional effects of the pandemic may be accompanied by a loss of dynamism in economies of the West, de-globalization, and a decline in American influence. As Leonard Cohen said, “You’re not going to like what comes after America.” 

ML: You said, “We are what we believe in.” But your professional life is built around an ongoing, dispassionate analysis of risk, and you recalibrate when the facts on the ground change sufficiently. Do you think, given people’s differing beliefs, and the intensity with which they are expressed, we are capable of that recalibration? Can we alter, just enough, what going into that “for-itself” element to avoid Leonard Cohen’s warning? 

RR: According to legend, which I believe to be true, Keynes quipped, “When the evidence changes, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” But this was rhetoric to disarm his enemies to coming around to his point of view. Like almost everyone, Keynes held reasonably consistent views over his life. 

As an investor, sure, I try to be dispassionate and recalibrate in response to the facts. But I also conduct that job in a social setting. We manage money on behalf of institutional investors, applying a steady process shaped by judgment, experience, data and consensus among my colleagues. The important facts on the ground are usually subject to ambiguity. Sometimes we have to take a for-itself leap based on evidence that can’t be readily quantified, but that leap needs to measure up to investors’ expectations.

As for the social and political fracturing in the U.S., I don’t know that beliefs differ nowadays any more than they usually do. Nor are the problems we disagree about, such as the economy or international relations, objectively more acute than in the past.

It is not practical that the country will recalibrate and settle on a common view to overcome our political dysfunction. Take free trade, for example. A lot of Americans—slightly less than half—are against it. One more lecture, “Now listen here, everyone gains from trade” is unlikely to succeed where all the previous ones have failed. As Walt Whitman said, “Logic and sermons never convince.” But it isn’t necessary that everyone agree. 

There is hope that America will reinvent itself. The next few months will, quite probably, shape the next few years.

ML: Thank you, Richard.

How We Choose was first published on July 20, 2020 in

You can find other work by Michael Liss at 3Q, and you can follow us on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, June 22, 2020

134 Days--On 3Quarks.

By Michael Liss

Had enough of the 2020 election? Take heart, there are just 134 days left until Vote-If-You-Can Tuesday. That’s less time than it took Napoleon to march his Grande Armée into Russia, win several lightning victories, stall out, and then retreat through the brutal winter, with astronomical casualties, all the while inspiring the equally long War and Peace and the 1812 Overture.

Who will win? My renowned tea leaf collection seems a little wilted today, but it still says that absolutely nothing is out of the realm of possibility. We really could go anywhere from a 2016 redux to a Democratic sweep. Given the vintage nature of the two candidates, you can’t even rule out a variation on the West Wing Leo McGarry scenario. Expect the asymmetric.

Under any circumstances, the electoral math would have been fascinating. Conventional wisdom has always been focused on the six Obama 2012 states that Trump flipped in 2016 (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Iowa). A key portion of the “Biden Electability” argument was based on his presumed appeal in those states. They would be the battleground because that’s where the winner would be determined.

It’s fair to say that fate, in the form of a pandemic and the country’s reaction to the death of George Floyd, has taken a hand. There are now multiple pathways for each man to reach 270, including several really unusual routes. The recent polling for Trump has been brutal. His top-line favorability numbers have taken a hit, particularly in the areas of race relations and handling COVID-19. That’s been further reflected in the horse race, where Biden has a roughly ten-point lead nationally.

Of course, 2016 showed in excruciating detail just how national polls can be woefully inaccurate in predicting where the Electoral College will end up. It’s reasonable to expect that past is prologue for even greater Democratic margins in places like New York and California, given the way Trump revels in messing with the Blue States. Unfortunately for Joe, once again, when you dig down deeper, you can see that many of the critical state polls are less decisive than the national ones. Joe leads, sometimes somewhat improbably (North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia) but often barely. He’s within the margin of error in Florida, Georgia and Ohio, and could easily whiff on all three. A 2.1% advantage in the popular vote left Hillary’s candidacy in smoldering ruins. I’ve seen some estimates that Biden could have as much as a 4% advantage, and still lose. 

Still, in an environment where Trump’s base support is nearly unshakable, Biden’s edge is notable. The prospect of his holding here, or even running the table, is not completely out of the question, just long odds. Biden’s absolute peak might exceed Obama’s 2008 win (365 EV) with a slightly different mix. The more probable outcome is that present polling numbers are truly of the moment, and that moment is the nadir of Trump’s fortunes. If that’s true, not only does Trump have the ability to grab back some of “his” states, but also can target at least two Biden ones. Both Minnesota (with added volatility because of George Floyd) and Nevada (casino-dependent and hurt by the shutdown) are possibilities.

If this all weren’t so incredibly important, it would be abstractly fascinating. For years, political scientists have been talking about how virtually every election has become nationalized, even when voters, in selecting their team, seem to be voting against their own interests. Consensus is out, angry tribalism is in. 2016, with its Trump-Clinton car-wreck of the unthinkable vs. the unlikeable, was the culmination of this movement. Never have a pair of candidates been so detested by so many—yet nominated.

2020 was shaping up to be much the same. Although none of the potential Democatic contenders generated nearly the visceral reaction that Hillary did, Trump was already peppering them with insults, and Trump-aligned social media spreading some poison. Suffice to say three-plus years in the White House had done nothing to mellow him. A great many people thought Trump would be a moderate businessman who would break some eggs, but in the end govern center-right. They were wrong. Vote Trump, you get deep dark dead-red Republican, with a potent dose of malevolence. That’s who he (now) is, and there are tens of millions who find that appealing. There are plenty more who would have liked the policy wins wrapped in a prettier package, but think what’s in the box looks good. When we talk about Trump’s base, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just MAGA-hatted attendees at one of his jumbo rallies or the near-monolithic support he gets from Evangelicals, but also transactional voters like seniors who want order and business people who let the bottom line guide them. A key to understanding Trump’s appeal is that he also gives, he doesn’t just take, and those who get don’t often refuse out of principle.

As long as these folks find their fulfillment (for emotional or practical reasons) in Trump, he has nationalized the election to an extent not seen before. You are either in the Trump Tent (and that includes Republican candidates for other offices) or you are the enemy. It’s all Trump: Trump dominating the screen(s), Trump meting out pain and pleasure, Trump using his incumbency for all it’s worth. That’s what Democrats anticipated as they lurched their way through the primary season. That, along with the confounding fact that, despite their strong performance in the 2018 Midterms, there was plenty of evidence that Trump’s strength in the states he had flipped in 2016 was holding.

Biden’s astonishing resurrection after the South Carolina primary on February 29th altered the emotional dynamic, but did little to change the basic math. It was still Trump’s game (and Trump’s Senate to investigate Biden on Trump’s behalf). While Biden was perceived as more electable by Democratic Primary voters, I think Trump and his brain trust entered mid-March with a feeling of confidence. Joe was feeble and battle-scarred, and they relished the idea of pulverizing another artifact of the Obama Era. They didn’t realize they were sitting on a viral stew (actually, two, the other being George Floyd) that could fundamentally change the landscape in the blink of an eye.
Trump was about to be tested by an issue no amount of Trumpiness would make go away.

Sometimes, there really are those 3:00 a.m. phone calls. I’m going to make two suggestions that seem mutually exclusive but I believe are true. First, Trump fumbled terribly in his initial response to COVID. He blustered, pointed fingers, suggested it was a hoax, picked fights with Governors, and obstructed his own government from helping. Second, it doesn’t matter, at least politically.  At worst it’s a flesh-wound for his campaign. A lot of elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, didn’t quite grasp the threat early on, and, while most of them didn’t use a bazooka on their critics, I think the public has internalized Trump’s excesses and are rarely moved by them. By the time we reach November, most aren’t going to blame him for March, April and May.

What will be important is what happens over the next 133 days, where it happens, and when. Absolutely no one can tell you with any degree of certainty what infection and fatality rates are going to be next month, much less in November. Nor can they predict whether more effective treatments or a vaccine will become available. The best that the best and most experienced minds can do is talk about probabilities.

Trump is going to have to rely on his extraordinary luck. One thing we learned from the initial public reaction to news of the virus and government attempts (or non-attempts) to get in front of it was how site-specific it was. Philip Klinkner, in an article for Vox, pointed out that “Clinton counties make up a slight majority of the US population, but so far they have seen 76 percent of the Covid-19 cases and 80 percent of the deaths.” He goes on to say, “This means Democrats and Republicans have experienced the pandemic in objectively different ways. These differences are already shaping the nation’s pandemic response—and may well influence American politics for years to come.”

Klinkner’s article was published on May 1st, and he was prescient. The divide continued to grow as new data came in, showing that the greatest infection and fatality rates were in Blue States and among the elderly and minorities. Trump’s base remained remote from the crisis, except in reacting to remediation efforts. Their resentment at restrictions and the economic implications, stoked by the President and his allies in the media, intensified. Even recent spikes in infection rates in reopening Sunbelt states haven’t yet caused universal alarm in the places they should, or action. These hands-off choices represent gambles by Governors like Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, Brian Kemp, and Doug Ducey (Texas, Florida, Georgia and Arizona) that the number of the seriously ill will stay below the rest of the population’s pain threshold.

Their gamble is Trump’s gamble. If he wins it, not only will he regain his grasp on some of those wavering states, but he will also put some others, presently in Democratic hands, in play for himself and other Republican candidates. The public in general has consistently supported reasonable restrictions to blunt the curve of the disease, but its patience is not infinite. People want to get back to the lives they led in early March. Trump (and Trump-supporting Governors) are telling them they can.

Timing is critical. First, Trump wants things to loosen up enough to force Biden to abandon his McKinley-esqe “Front-Porch Candidacy,” which allows Joe to husband his physical resources for the home stretch. Biden’s measured, Presidential responses, on COVID, on George Floyd, and on anything else, either in public, or from his home, are driving Trump nuts. He wants Biden to step into the (non-virtual) ring, and has been ridiculing him for his weakness. So far, Biden hasn’t taken the bait, but he will have to if conditions improve. Both his team and Trump realize his vulnerability.

Second, Trump wants to recreate 2016. He craves the adrenaline of rallies filled with mask-less people waving banners and cheering themselves silly. Trump is a master of branding and symbols, and for him, the most important quality to showcase is strength. His gathering in Tulsa just this past Saturday was a critical test. Watch the next two weeks. If he and his followers can get through it with no significant spikes in infection rates, that opens the door for more rallies, and more grievances against “weak” Governors and Mayors who insist on putting public health concerns first. If infections surge, it will be more bad PR, but Trump will try again in July somewhere else. He’s not giving up his rallies, especially as it would be seen as a concession. Trump doesn’t do concessions. 

How does this end? Which side will have a hangover on the Wednesday after? It’s unclear.  Biden is doing a little rope-a-dope, and it’s working for him, at least now. As to Trump, he’s a bit off his game, but still punching, still the apex predator. The basic Trumpian approach to everything, taking credit while refusing to accept responsibility, spiced up with what you saw in Tulsa, remains adaptable to the current situation. More importantly, Trump can also still reach transactional voters: he has a plausible argument that (unduly harsh) restrictions tanked the economy, and it’s his pro-growth policies that will lead us back. He might even get some help from the weather, as the summer heat is predicted to slow the virus.

134 days is a lot of time to get things right. Or it’s too many.  Of course, Napoleon eventually
abandoned the Grande Armée and returned home on a sleigh. It was awfully cold out there.

134 Days was first published at on June 22, 2020

You can also find us on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, May 25, 2020

Liberty and Disunion

There is a statue of Daniel Webster in Central Park. It is tucked in at the intersection of West and Bethesda Drives, massive and unmoving, implacable and forbidding. Despite its size, it goes largely unnoticed, except as a meeting point.

Just a few hundred feet to the west of Webster is The Dakota, where John Lennon lived and died, and Strawberry Fields, a small memorial inside the Park dedicated to Lennon’s memory. In non-viral times, buses line up near The Dakota, and platoons of tourists pause there for pictures, then walk to Strawberry Fields, then across to Bethesda Fountain. If you happen to be jogging, they will wait until you pass, many with bemused looks at the strange beings who inhabit this odd corner of the universe. Occasionally, a guided tour will take brief note of Webster, but most move on. Such is fame.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Daniel Webster was seen as a giant, one of the foremost statesmen of the first half of the 19th Century. He, along with Kentucky’s Henry Clay and South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, were known as the Great Triumvirate of the Senate. All three also served as Secretary of State; all three ached for the Presidency and never quite got there; all three were antagonists, rivals, and sometimes collaborators. Clay was the Great Compromiser. Of Calhoun, the historian Richard Hofstadter said he was “probably the last American statesman to do any primary political thinking.” Webster was an orator so esteemed that Stephen Vincent Benét had him besting the Devil himself. 

These qualities all came together in one of the most fascinating and consequential debates in our history, South Carolina’s drive for Nullification, and, eventually, its assertion that it had the right to leave the Union. William F. Freehling called it a “Prelude to Civil War” (in a book of the same title) and, in its issues and its sectional animosities, one can see why. It certainly had high drama—florid speeches, torchlight parades, marching and mass rallies, dueling, armed militias drilling, and the glowering presence of the biggest personality of all, Andrew Jackson.

For all that, it started small. In 1816, the national government adopted tariffs that were intended to protect domestic manufacturers from foreign competition. At the time, it made sense. We were still a new nation, slowly recovering from the War of 1812, needing to support a military, domestic industry, and basic improvements. Yet, tariffs were controversial, particularly in the South. Though facially non-discriminatory, they did have an adverse impact on non-diversified agriculturally-based economies, while benefiting (mostly Northern) manufacturers. South Carolina, perhaps the most extreme example of a monoculture economy, and faced with an erratic market for its crops and steady degradation of its lands, was particularly vulnerable and justifiably concerned.

If Congress had left the 1816 Tariff unchanged, it’s likely the anger would have continued, but on a slow burn. Unfortunately, Congress wasn’t done. The Tariff of 1828 (“Tariff of Abominations”) exacerbated the problem, rather than offer legislative relief. It passed with minimal resistance, probably because the South had much bigger concerns: The rematch between the decidedly unloved John Quincy Adams and Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson. 

Adams’ election in 1824 had shaken the South. All were aware that demographic changes had tilted the Congressional playing field towards the North, but, after 24 years of the Presidency being held by Virginians (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), 1824 reminded them of their vulnerability. Virginians might be a little high-handed at times, but were comparatively safe. New Englanders were arrogant and boorish money-grubbers who held dangerous views on things like human bondage, and might use their power to take swipes at it.

Jackson decisively defeated Adams, but the Tariff was still there, and many South Carolinians wanted it gone. So did Calhoun, who was playing a difficult double game. As first Adams’ and then Jackson’s Vice President, it was difficult for him to advocate policies at direct variance with the President’s. And as someone who hungered for the top spot, it might have been political suicide to take too radical a position in public. In 1828, while the campaign was going on, he had secretly authored his “Exposition and Protest,” which quite explicitly called for nullification of the Tariff, in the context of making a much broader philosophical argument for what we now would call (very) limited government. But that remained a secret, and, in public, he maintained a moderate, more nationalistic face.

Nullification was a challenging concept, but Calhoun was an extraordinarily gifted thinker.  Even skipping some of the intricacies of his arguments, the underpinnings remain resonant, at a time when so many of us are questioning the exercise of government power. Calhoun worried about majority domination in a republican form of government. Invariably, in Calhoun’s thinking, once a group (or aligned groups) gained power, they would exploit their position to reward themselves at the expense of the minority.  Obviously, Calhoun wasn’t the first to recognize this; the Founders themselves had concerns. But experience had told him that the aspirational virtue expressed in Madison’s Federalist 10—a conviction that diversity of interests and opinions would create a dynamic that would foster compromise—had not been achieved.

The answer to Majority Tyranny was either nullification or what Calhoun called a “concurrent majority,” requiring each interest (each state) to consent to legislation. To modern eyes, it seems wildly impractical,  but, at a time when the world was far less complex, and many people thought of themselves as state citizens as well, it had some appeal. 

Yet, there was a core incongruity in Calhoun’s argument, which even he tacitly acknowledged: If you considered the Constitution a contract (as many citizens did, in the Lockean sense of the word), didn’t the states (including South Carolina, the eighth state to ratify) agree on behalf of themselves and their citizens to be bound by laws that were passed by Congress and signed by the President? The Tariff might very well be abominable, but it’s a law, and if you don’t like the law, use the mechanisms in place (such as Amendment or Supreme Court review) to change it.

Calhoun had an exquisitely wrought answer for this: That wasn’t the nature of the contract. The Constitution did not give final “sovereign” authority to determine what was Constitutional to any branch or branches of government, including the Supreme Court. Final authority would have had to have been specifically expressed as such in the document, and it was not. In the absence of an enumerated power, the authority remained with the states, and not as a majority of states, but each individual one. Calhoun considered several approaches, but settled on an elegant one: It is the people—the governed–who are the supreme arbiters over that to which they have given their consent. Consent once given is not consent for all time. The governed may withhold their consent and seek to change the terms of the contract (or any piece of legislation) when they wish, through the mechanism of a state convention. This was the way citizens preserved their rights.

Calhoun was somewhat clairvoyant in his concerns. He grasped that the power to determine, with finality, whether a law is Constitutional, was also a power to shape the law itself. Even the Supreme Court could be controlled by a malevolent majority. This is why, from his perspective, ultimate sovereignty must reside with the governed.

What Calhoun did not address adequately was the practical effect of Nullification. The power to say no turned majoritarianism on its head—to maintain a Union, the many must always yield to the few. While Calhoun professed to be a Nationalist (whether for political reasons or out of belief is not clear) he was, in fact, advocating for a policy that made it impossible for a union of states to be anything more than a casual confederation. 

As radical as this idea seems, it first gave strength to the Unionists in South Carolina by supplying them with an intellectual construct for their position. That allowed them to beat back the radicals who wanted more aggressive action (like secession). But it also contained the seeds of its own destruction because of its inherent instability. Nullification wasn’t reform; it was, in practice, a call for revolution from 50 years of government under the Constitution. Even those sympathetic to South Carolina on the specific issue of Tariffs (or, both tacitly and explicitly, slavery) recognized that there was no national consensus for it.

Discussion in Congress was heated, and, in late December 1829, Senator Samuel Foot (CT) lit a match by introducing a resolution calling for an inquiry into limiting the sale of public lands in what was then the Southwest. Over the course of the next few months, nearly half the Senators weighed in, several multiple times, and on many more issues than land. The speeches became public spectacles; the galleries were filled; and, as an added touch of drama, Calhoun attended in his (then) role as Vice President and President of the Senate. The emotional climax was the debate between Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina and Webster. Hayne gave a good account of himself but stumbled a bit on nullification when he declared that the state legislature, rather than a state convention, could nullify a Federal law. Webster pounced. On January 26, 1830, he rose and, over two days, carefully dissected the internal inconsistencies of Haynes’s argument. Then Daniel Webster did a Daniel Webster:
When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union…Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured…but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land…Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!
The gallery, the entire Chamber, stayed silent as Webster resumed his seat. He had accomplished an extraordinary feat. With one burst of eloquence, he had yanked the discussion from Calhoun’s astringent intellectualism into something deeper and more emotional, a pride of place and country. Nullification was a coldblooded political tactic. Webster drew people to a higher calling.

Webster’s speech might have been a turning point, but, in hindsight, you can see he may also have accelerated the crisis. On February 5, 1830, George McDuffie, a South Carolina Congressman (and later Senator and Governor), introduced a bill to roll back the 1828 and 1824 rates. It was tabled by a decisive margin, demonstrating anew the futility of South Carolina’s hopes to get Congressional redress. A month of debate had moved its cause backwards, and some who hoped to work through the system now began to despair that more aggressive action was needed.

At the same time, relations between Calhoun and Jackson deteriorated. On April 13, 1830, at the annual Jefferson Day celebration, several toasts were made that supported the minority veto. Jackson would have none of it, and came armed with his own. He bade the crowd rise, fixed his fierce gaze on Calhoun, and toasted “Our Federal Union—It must be preserved.”  Calhoun, clearly shaken, was only able to offer “The Union—Next to our liberties, the most dear.”

The Nullifiers had boxed themselves in. The radicalness of their proposal and the intemperate language with which they often expressed themselves alienated others in the South who might otherwise have been sympathetic. Jackson himself was a moderate on the Tariff issue and urged his allies to make some accommodation, but both he and the South Carolinians must have realized that the contest was no longer just about collecting duties, it was about power, theirs, and his.

With nowhere else to go, the South Carolinians turned on each other, with the Nullifiers and the Unionists in pitched battle for control. The Unionists’ early upper hand evaporated as passions rose, and the Nullifiers’ superior organizational skills began to have an effect. In the summer of 1831, the pressure on Calhoun to out himself was finally too much to resist, and he issued his Fort Hill Letter, announcing to the nation his support of Nullification. Historians differ over whether this was an implicit acknowledgment that his presidential aspirations weren’t succeeding, or an attempt to be seen as a regional champion and win the White House that way. In either event, it drove a final wedge between him and both Jackson and Jackson’s supporters. Calhoun ceased being a national candidate.

On October 26, 1832, the State Legislature, now dominated by Nullifiers, passed a law authorizing a State Convention to be held a month later, to consider actions proper for the State to address in the absence of satisfactory progress. The Convention met in November, after Jackson had won reelection, and with no meaningful resistance from the Unionists (many of whom boycotted it), passed a sweeping resolution. After reciting a list of grievances, the resolution declared the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 void and made it a penal offense for a federal or state officer to attempt to enforce them after Feb. 1, 1833. The Legislature was directed to pass any laws necessary to effectuate this, and to protect a citizen if he refused to pay duties. Any attempt by the federal government to enforce the laws would be considered a justification for South Carolina to secede. Governor Hamilton and the Legislature made sure that wasn’t the end of it. In a barnburner of a speech, he reinforced the idea of secession, and called for an army of at least 12,000 men. The Legislature passed the necessary enabling legislation and added something of its own: a “Test Oath” of exclusive obedience to state laws for all state officeholders (a remarkable demand given the Nullifiers’ complaints about majority tyranny at the federal level).

The Fire-eaters were exultant. They thought of the signing of the new ordinances as akin to that of the Declaration of Independence. Robert Hayne resigned from the Senate and was promptly elected Governor, and Calhoun resigned as Vice President and was selected to be his replacement. Hayne’s first speech exceeded Hamilton’s in passion and radicalism, and, by all accounts, many of his listeners were swept away by his fervor.

Perhaps this was the highwater mark. Reality began to close in very rapidly. The expressions of support that were expected from their fellow Southerners were notably absent, and several state governments were quite critical. And there was that man in the White House, who was not known to appreciate resistance.

Jackson didn’t wait long to react. Quietly, he gave orders for the military to prepare, while taking steps to minimize direct engagement so as to avoid the possibility of an inadvertent shooting war. Publicly, he gave his Annual Message to Congress, declaring that Nullification would endanger the Union, and expressing confidence that extant laws were sufficient for him to deal with it, but also encouraging Congress to review the Tariff laws and lower existing rates.

If South Carolina drew any comfort from this, he dispelled it quickly. On December 10th, Jackson took on Nullification and Secession with all the forcefulness and clarity of purpose for which he was known. In his Nullification Proclamation (largely written by Secretary of State Edward Livingston), he said,
I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.
In case anyone thought his views on secession were any more nuanced: “[D]isunion, by armed force, is TREASON.”

The issue could not be more clearly drawn. To Jackson, his duty was clear, as was his understanding of the Constitutional “contract.” Once a law was duly enacted, the remedies available were through Constitutional Amendment or a ruling by the Supreme Court, not Nullification. But, the Nullification Proclamation wasn’t just a closed fist. If you read it through, you will also see Jackson appealing to South Carolinians’ sense of shared nationhood and their place as both heroes of the past and beneficiaries of a great American future.

January of 1833 was a blur of action. South Carolina speechified and planned, recruited and drilled. Jackson let it be known that he was willing to take command personally, to squelch the rebellion. Both sides wooed the undeclared Southern States, and both knew that the first one to commit a violent act could cause those states to tip in the opposite direction. In Washington, Jackson grimly prepared for the worst, but quietly looked for a less confrontational resolution. 

Delicate, difficult, but not impossible, and, at this critical moment, Jackson showed remarkable balance. The stick was his own iron will, and his request to Congress to give him additional authority in what came to be known as the “Force Bill.” The carrot: He encouraged the introduction of a Tariff reform bill.

Into the middle of this jumped Henry Clay, recently thoroughly thrashed by Jackson in the 1832 election. Clay was no fan of the President, and opposed the Force Bill, but relished the opportunity to be peacemaker, and privately worked with both sides, including directly with Calhoun. Calhoun played a public role as well, in a two-day performance ardently arguing against the Force Bill and for what had become his obsession, the logic of state sovereignty.  Then Webster rose to challenge Calhoun, defended the Force Bill and the compromise Tariff, and the circle closed. Deals were made, the Compromise of 1833 was set, and, on March 2, 1833, Jackson signed both the Force Bill and the Tariff Reform Bill, and South Carolina obliquely accepted it by pretending some of it didn’t quite exist. All the players congratulated themselves on their victories.

Happy ending? Calhoun maintained his allegiance to his theories, and was known to expostulate at great length to anyone within earshot. Clay found himself defined by his opposition to Jackson, but remained in the Senate, eventually becoming a Whig. He tried three more times for the Presidency, winning the nomination once more, in 1844, only to lose the general election to John Tyler. As for Webster, he ran for President in 1836, but ended up a fringe candidate. Later he was a credible Secretary of State, then returned to the Senate and worked with Clay on the Compromise of 1850. In a final irony, he was considered far too friendly to the South and lost political support closer to home.

South Carolina? The fire never went entirely out, and, if you think about it, the tension between Majority rule and Minority rights can never be fully resolved. All we can do is try to act in good faith, and, by doing so, engender trust.  It does seem like a thin reed at times.

Liberty and Disunion was first published on Memorial Day, May 25th, 2020 at

You can find it there, and other original work by Michael Liss.

And you can find and me on Twitter @SyncPol