It's Amateur Hour, Again
Political parties out of power almost always campaign on change. But the party that in the 1946 midterm congressional elections campaigned on the slogan “Had enough?” this year is seeking not only to change the political persuasion of the person in the White House but also is flirting with transforming the kind of people nominated for national office.
That is the irresistible conclusion prompted by the stunning finding in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll showing that three candidates who have never served a single hour in political office —billionaire businessman Donald J. Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former high-tech executive Carly Fiorina — now attract the support of more than half of likely Republican primary voters.
This represents a wholesale rejection of important elements of the classic Republican outlook — and of classical conservative political thought. It suggests, moreover, that a major political party and an established political creed may be parting ways with the past — and may be blazing a brave but risky new future.
Both traditional Republicanism and classic conservatism —and though at many times in American politics they have converged, they are not the same thing — customarily extol the virtue of experience and the prudence that comes from personal exposure to historical precedent. It was Edmund Burke, revered as one of the founding fathers of conservatism, who argued that the duty of political figures is to “consult and follow your experience.’’
But this new departure — not only the preference for new faces but also the revulsion for the familiar and the experienced— is especially stark when you contrast the complete lack of experience of the three candidates whose Republican poll ratings are a cumulative 52 percentage points with the rivals who trail them. Their opponents have a cumulative 49 years as governor, 35 in the Senate, 34 in the House and 22 in state legislatures. Together these experienced politicians, who also have held many municipal positions, have collected only 39 percentage points.
Democrats have long embraced the new face; the best example may be Woodrow Wilson, who with only two years of experience as governor of New Jersey, was the party’s 1912 nominee. He defeated two established political figures with a cumulative 11 years in the presidency, four in the Cabinet, eight on the federal bench, two as governor, two in the state legislature and experience as colonial governor of both Cuba and the Philippines.
But traditionally Republicans have favored experience and a peculiar form of political primogeniture that delivers their presidential nomination to figures such as Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole — men who ran for national office a cumulative 10 times and who first held important positions: senate majority leader, vice president, governor.
Only once in the last three-quarters of a century did Republicans stray from this practice that they transformed into a dogma. (The nomination of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 doesn’t count, as he was among a dozen generals, beginning with George Washington, who became president.)
This departure occurred in 1940, when, from a field that included, among others, two leading senators (Robert A. Taft of Ohio and Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan) and a prominent governor (Harold E. Stassen of Minnesota), the Republicans nominated the president of the Commonwealth and Southern Corp., then as now an important electric utility holding company.
Wendell Willkie, sometimes called the barefoot boy from Wall Street, hadn’t served a minute in public office before a number of supporters, especially Fortune magazine editor Russell Davenport, put him forward as a presidential alternative to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then completing his second term. (Mr. Davenport was the husband of Marcia Davenport, the author of perhaps the most evocative Pittsburgh novel ever written, “Valley of Decision”.)
The context for the Willkie campaign was a GOP yearning for a new start so strong that the man widely considered the front-runner for the party’s nomination had written this in his personal diary after the 1938 midterm congressional elections: “The Republican Party wants and needs new names, new ideas, new blood.” So wrote Mr. Vandenberg, who died in 1951.
“Willkie presented himself, accurately, as an amateur at politics,” A. James Reichley wrote in “The Life of the Parties,” his classic 1992 history of American politics. Mr. Reichley’s analysis holds lessons for our politics today:
“This stance appealed to the strain in American folk belief that regards a career devoted to the pursuit of public office as a sign of defective character.”
For his part, Mr. Willkie had a style much like that of Mr. Trump. “If any of you have any doubts about my availability because I’m in business, go ahead and vote against me,” he said in an appearance in Lincoln, Neb., that was cited by his biographer, Steve Neal, in 1984. “I’m in business and I’m proud of it. Nobody can make me soft-pedal any fact in my business career. After all, business is our way of life, our achievement, our glory.”
The Willkie boom was, as former President Herbert Hoover said, “a sort of reaction from disappointment as to candidates.” But it was more than that — and here is another echo reaching our own times. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Willkie, according to the late University of Illinois historian Mark Leff, “could also be stirringly persuasive, quotable and engaging.”
Ross Gregory, who for 38 years taught American history at Western Michigan University, once wrote that Mr. Willkie’s appeal stemmed from “the novelty of [his] quest for the presidency — the excitement of this flash on the national stage, the understanding that here was a story that was not part of the normal course of politics.”
This flash on the national stage of amateur candidates now is being repeated, perhaps as tragedy, perhaps as farce, perhaps as a way to redeem the Founders’ faith, honored in the breach over two dozen decades, in the virtue of citizen-politicians.
The experts believe that Mr. Trump, Dr. Carson and Ms. Fiorina will fade as political forces. But the whole basis of the three candidates’ campaigns is that political expertise, like political experience, is a remnant of a time swiftly passing. If so, then one of these three may possess the face of the future, and the change they personify may represent a profound transformation of our politics.