September 4, 2019


There are two kinds of failed U.S. presidents, those with the wrong governing philosophy and those with no governing philosophy.

Whichever President Donald Trump may be, there is no doubt that he is transformational and polarizing, and has temporarily destroyed America's two party system - and created a three-party system through at least 2020: Pro-Trump vs. non-Trump vs. anti-Trump.

History repeats itself. The question is whether Trump will be a historically irrelevant and inconsequential figure comparable to presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Or a transformational figure who presaged a major realignment, like presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, and candidate William Jennings Bryan.

In a capitalist democracy there is always an evolving center-right versus center-left political division, with those averse to change and benefiting from the status quo (the so-called "haves") being conservative, and those for change because they are not benefiting from the status quo (the "have-nots") being liberal. The historical reality is that democracies become even more liberal over time, in spurts and stops, with a corrective retrenchment every 20 or so years, like Reagan in 1980, but then balanced by a spurt to the left, like Obama in 2008.

Trump's shortcoming is that, like Pierce, Buchanan, Cleveland, Hoover and Carter, he has no specific governing philosophy, other than to undo as many liberal excesses of the Obama administration as possible. As a result, Trump IS THE REPUBLICAN PARTY, and party per se stands for nothing. And the Democrats, likewise, stand for nothing except being against whatever Trump is for or represents. They ARE THE ANTI-TRUMP PARTY. Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised that her 235-199 U.S. House would pursue an agenda, but nothing tangible has been done. Political affiliation has vanished, replaced by identity and cultural politics, wherein ideology, ethnicity, race, heredity, geography, sexual orientation, affluence and generation impact and dictate one's vote. Split tickets are gone and straight ticket voting is back.

And the path to victory, at least in the presidential contests, is to have a larger-than-life personality, and the goal is to make just a few more people love you than hate you. Trump panders to his 44-46 percent base, while Democratic contenders frantically try to out-socialist each other, since half of their 48-50 percent base, especially on the coasts, are not averse to one or more of the following: Medicare-for-all and a single-payer healthcare system, open borders, Green New Deal and exterminating the fossil fuel industry, free college tuition, a guaranteed annual income, reparations, student loan forgiveness, confiscatory tax hikes on the "wealthy," and cutting the $1 trillion military budget by half to fund it all. Nobody, including the president, addresses the $18 trillion national debt.

No candidate proposes "sacrifices" or compromises. Nobody is respectful of those who disagree, imputing dastardly and/or dishonorable motives. All agree that special constituencies are victims if they don't get what they demand. None understand that America cannot afford to satisfy everybody's real or imagined entitlements.

Which leaves the non-Trump voters - a quarter to third of Democrats - as the balance of power. Right now the choice is between Trump and 20-plus Democrats, and Trump is polling at 39-42 percent. Once the choice becomes binary, which is Trump versus a specific Democrat, the dynamic will change. The Democrats' center-left and democratic socialist factions must unify and amass 36 electoral votes in five key states: Florida (27), Michigan (16), Wisconsin (10), Iowa (6) and Pennsylvania (20). That is all it will take to beat Trump: A switch of as little as 75,100 2016 pro-Trump votes to the Democrat in those states. Trump won the electoral vote 306-232, so 36 fewer votes in 2020 is fatal. This tempestuous battle for the "soul" of the party is idiotic and irrelevant.

A philosophy of the government's role in society underscores political activity and political parties. The center-left party seeks greater federal intervention in and regulation of the private sector, and of civil rights. The left-left faction of that party seeks wholesale systemic change. The center-right party champions business, is not averse to corporate socialism, government contracts, tariffs and subsidies, expects donations, and trumpets tax cuts and tax breaks. The right-right faction of that party wants to relive the 1950s.

1800: ADAMS vs. JEFFERSON: Adams was a Bostonian Federalist, understood the value of commercial trade and a monetary system, plus internal improvements and a military. Alexander Hamilton was his ally. Jefferson was an agrarian Virginian, landed (and a lave-holding) aristocrat, and state's rights advocate. No government was the best government. Jefferson tied Adams 73-73 in electoral votes, the House chose Jefferson, and Jeffersonians ruled until 1824. Jefferson did see the wisdom of the Louisiana Purchase.

1824: ADAMS vs. JACKSON: Westward settlement produced military hero Andrew Jackson of Tennessee for president, opposing Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who thought it was his turn. Jackson won the popular vote, but the electoral vote was split four ways. Henry Clay directed his votes to Adams, and then got the state job. Adams supported internal improvements, with roads, dams and forts - making him the liberal. Jackson was for state's rights, free land, Indian relocation, slavery and annexation of Florida. Jackson's followers fumed about 1824's "corrupt bargain," Jackson in 1828 trounced Adams 178-83, and conservative Jacksonian Democrats ruled until 1860. Clay's Whigs emerged as the opposition liberal, nationalist party, and won the presidency in 1840 and 1848. Presidents Pierce and Buchanan were "doughface" Democrats, meaning Northern men with Southern sympathies, and let the country implode.

1860: LINCOLN vs. DOUGLAS: Northern industrialization and immigration, western migration, and the fashionably liberal social doctrine of abolition portended the South's (and slavery's) doom by 1860. The Whigs were gone by 1856. The Republicans emerged as the anti-slavery party, but were split between the center-left, which just wanted to stop its spread and leave it alone where it existed, and the left-left, which wanted abolition, which would destroy the South's tobacco and cotton economy.

With three opponents - Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, who pushed for "popular sovereignty" with each new state voting on slavery; southern Democrat John Breckinridge; and border state Unionist (and ex-Whig) John Bell - Lincoln was a cinch to win, and he did with 35 percent. His governing philosophy was to cast the Civil War as a struggle to prevent disunion, not to free the slaves.

With a couple of key 1864 military victories, Lincoln was re-elected with 55 percent, and only because the South couldn't vote. Had Lincoln lost, the South would have been a separate nation. After passing constitutional amendments, and suppressing the South's vote during Reconstruction, the Republicans became the center-right party of northeastern Big Business and Protestant small town America, and Democrats the right-right party of Southern segregationists, who used "state's rights" to suppress the section's majority-black population, and urban immigrants (primarily Irish) and agrarian farmers.

1896: McKINLEY vs. BRYAN: For 28 of the 36 years from 1860 to 1896 a pro-business Republican held the presidency, and Cleveland was a pro-business New York pro-gold standard Democrat. By the 1890s trusts and monopolies were rampant, workers were underpaid and exploited, and farmers were gouged by railroads to get their products to market. William Jennings Bryan, a Nebraska populist, ran in 1896 against tycoon-backed William McKinley. Bryan wanted silver coinage, trust-busting and fair wages. McKinley won, but his successor Theodore Roosevelt co-opted most of Bryan's agenda in the 1900s, moving the Republicans to center-left for a few years. But Woodrow Wilson re-captured that ground in 1912, when two Republicans ran and Republicans returned to center-right-right, which was laissez faire pro-business.

1932: HOOVER vs. ROOSEVELT: A non-interventionist economic non-policy was Hoover's doom in 1932 after the 1929 stock market collapse and ensuing Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt demonstrated that it is the obligation of government to cure economic catastrophes, not ignore them until they cure themselves. When money is scarce, and business withering, the government must "prime the pump." Hoover's ineptitude and Roosevelt's center-left New Deal gave Democrats a 20-year lock on the White House.

1980: REAGAN vs. CARTER: Republicans may have mumbled about rolling-back the New Deal and Fair Deal, and social security, and Lyndon Johnson's Medicare, Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and Model Cities, but America had moved left. Retrenchment, not repeal, was the only option. History has yet to indicate whether Carter had a wrong philosophy of governance or just no philosophy. He bungled on inflation and the Iranian hostage fiasco, and had an oil embargo. Reagan swamped him 489-49.

Reagan was a transformative president, realigning conservative southerners into the Republican Party, undermining the Soviet Union, and proving that supply-side tax-cuts can stimulate economic growth. When Bill Clinton ran in 1992 he campaigned as a center-center Democrat, and his signal achievement was welfare reform, not healthcare reform. It was George W. Bush's failed foreign policy along with the housing market collapse and recession that elected Barack Obama in 2008.

Systemic and societal reform, as sought by the left-left, is feasible during a time of economic crisis and dislocation. Now is not that time. If Trump loses it will be because the thought of tolerating him for 4 more years has become intolerable.