Monday, January 2, 2006

Polking Along

Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times finds a historical parallel to the current administration.

The president whom George W. Bush may resemble most is not his biological father, George H.W. Bush, or even Ronald Reagan, who often seems his ideological father, but James K. Polk, a dynamic and willful leader few discuss anymore.

Polk, when elected president as a Democrat in 1844, had more political experience than Bush (Polk had spent 20 years in elective office, compared with Bush’s six). But like Bush (who was 54 in 2000), Polk was young (49) and extremely self-confident when he took office.

Polk may be the only predecessor who matched Bush’s determination to drive massive change on a minute margin of victory. Polk won by fewer than 38,000 votes of 2.7 million cast. Over four tumultuous years, he pursued an ambitious, highly partisan agenda that offered little to those who had voted against him. Sound familiar?

Strong on vision but weak on building consensus, Polk advanced his goals more than seemed possible in a closely divided country. But Polk’s tactics deepened the nation’s divisions and fanned the flames that later exploded into the Civil War.

It’s worth considering Polk’s record not because Americans will take up arms against each other anytime soon — although you might never know that from listening to talk radio — but because it suggests that a president who slights the need to build national consensus can seed long-term problems that aren’t immediately apparent amid short-term successes.


Polk’s unwavering, impermeable conviction defines one approach for organizing a presidency in such circumstances. But Polk’s early critic — Lincoln — offers Bush a better model for leadership during a difficult war. In the Civil War, Lincoln was nothing if not resolute. But […] he also calibrated his decisions — from key personnel appointments to the timing of emancipation — to hold together all shades of opinion committed to the Union.

Bush lately has met more with Democrats and acknowledged mistakes on Iraq. But substantively, he has not conceded much, either about Iraq or his tactics in the broader war on terrorism (except his belated capitulation to Senate demands for a ban on torture in the interrogation of prisoners). The divisions over Iraq are so deep that nothing Bush could do would bridge them entirely, and his inclination to ignore his most implacable opponents is understandable. But Bush would place the nation’s security on a more stable foundation if he worked harder to find a consensus agenda with those critics whose assessment of the threat in Iraq and at home was closer to his own.

Part of Lincoln’s genius, as one close advisor wrote, was his understanding that in the pursuit of national unity, it was the task of the president “to mollify and moderate” the country’s fractious interests and diverse viewpoints. That’s one reason Lincoln is revered and Polk, for all his ferocious accomplishments, is barely remembered.

Maybe somebody ought to Polk the president.