A promise of unpredictability

Historian Joseph J. Ellis' latest book is "American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic."

The first time an American president’s policies defied all the promises made during his campaign occurred in 1800. Thomas Jefferson’s platform called for a reduction of federal, especially executive, power; fiscal austerity aimed at reducing the national debt; and strict interpretation of the Constitution. The opportunity to purchase the Louisiana Territory in 1803 threw all of these Jeffersonian principles into the proverbial cocked hat. As it turned out, in order to acquire an empire, one had to become an imperial president, and Jefferson, albeit reluctantly, did just that.

The same paradoxical pattern repeated itself on several notable occasions in the 20th century. Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the United States out of World War I in 1912, but took us to war in 1917. Lyndon Johnson vowed that American boys would never be sent to Vietnam, but reversed himself in 1965. Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” that could not be trusted, then proceeded to negotiate the greatest reduction in nuclear weapons of all time.

Though the 21st century is just getting started, already the paradoxical pattern has continued. George W. Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” in domestic policy and an opponent of any sustained American role as global policeman. But his domestic policies have been designed to appeal to the right-wing base of the Republican Party, and his response to 9/11 has made the United States a preemptive, unilateral world power with boundless global ambitions and responsibilities.

If you look at this pattern squarely, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, as often as not, what presidential candidates say to get elected has absolutely no predictive power about what they will actually do as president. If you push the pattern to its outer limits, it suggests that presidential policies often end up contradicting campaign promises. And if you apply this logic to the current presidential campaigns, voters who regard American withdrawal from Iraq as their highest priority should not vote for any of the three leading Democratic candidates -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards -- but instead for Republican John McCain.


There is something perverse about this way of thinking, and the pattern itself, though disarmingly frequent, is not sure-fire through history. But the reasons for its prevalence are rooted in two political realities that go all the way back to Jefferson’s election.

First, campaigns are inherently exercises in propaganda and posturing, the posing of melodramatic choices usually defined by candidates’ contorted exercises against stereotypical versions of the opposition. The real-world choices facing a president seldom fit into these operatic campaign categories. So picking a president is a little like picking a long-distance runner exclusively on the basis of his (or her) talent at running wind sprints.

A corollary is that it is almost impossible to know who can make the transition from candidate to president brilliantly, let alone successfully. Two presidents in the brilliant category, Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, surprised all the experts and pundits of the day, who initially regarded them as superficial ciphers. Roosevelt was dismissed as “a second-rate mind” and Lincoln as “an Illinois hayseed.”

Second, the world has a way of generating unforeseen predicaments that require unrehearsed choices. Even the broad issues that dominate a campaign are seldom synonymous with those a president must face. Jefferson had no way of knowing that Napoleon would impetuously decide to sell all the land from the Mississippi to the Rockies for a pittance. Wilson had no way of knowing that the Germans would decide to resume unrestricted submarine warfare against U.S. shipping. Roosevelt had no way of knowing that the Japanese would bet their future as an Asian power on a surprise attack against the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. And as a candidate, Bush had no way of knowing that Islamic terrorists would fly planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The marathon version of campaigning only exacerbates these disconnects. The central rationale is that candidates will reveal themselves and that voters will come to know how they will conduct themselves if elected. But if history is a guide, this conviction is generally an illusion. The net result is that our votes for president are usually blind bets rather than sensible wagers.

In U.S. history, I can think of just two presidents (there may be others) who were remarkably good at defying the paradoxical pattern: George Washington and James K. Polk.

Washington levitated above all partisan infighting and campaigning because of his stature as the foundingest father of them all, a man who could be trusted with power because of his demonstrated willingness to surrender it. His predictability in that regard alone might have earned him the position of first among equals in the American pantheon. Polk, in the campaign of 1844, promised a reduction of the tariff, resolution of Oregon’s borders and the acquisition of California. He achieved them all, did everything that he said he would do, then stepped down and died three months later, his legacy for consistency secure.

As the primaries and caucuses proceed through Iowa, New Hampshire and on to Nevada and South Carolina, we’d be foolish to believe there was a Washington or even a Polk on the ballot. All that we can responsibly ask of the voters in those states -- who are likely to define our choices in the general election -- is to decide on a course they think the country should follow, vote accordingly, then say a prayer. Because, as they say, you never know.