In this NRO article, columnist Todd Seavey calls on conservatives to dump their concerns about pulling out of Iraq too early, forget their pro-life leanings, and support GOP libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) for president. Seavey claims that Paul would have no problem winning the general election against any Democratic candidate. He says that Paul’s real problem is his current inability to gain traction in the Republican primary race.
Rather than supply us with boring statistical measures to support his main point, Seavey supplies an array of wild suppositions. Here’s how it goes. If Paul could win the GOP nomination, all of the conservative base would, of course, support him rather than support a Democrat. He would also pick up all of the libertarian swing voters that dumped the GOP last November. Seavey seems almost giddy as he claims that Paul would get “a huge share of the bourgeoning antiwar vote to boot.”
This is all highly speculative and wishful thinking that bears little resemblance to grounded reality. I am grateful that Ron Paul is in the presidential race. He has a good track record of sticking hard to his libertarian principles and not being swayed by political machinations. He has an opportunity to influence the debate and help remind other GOP candidates of principles of liberty.
But he has absolutely no chance of winning the GOP nomination. Nor is it likely Paul’s name would even appear on the eventual nominee’s list of potential VP running mates. Let’s face it folks; Ron Paul will never be elected president or vice president. Despite Seavey’s enthusiastic cheerleading, Ron Paul will never be the GOP presidential or VP nominee.
Check the History Books
How can I be so sure? Let’s just say that I think history is a fairly accurate guide; although, as they say in the investing world, past performance is not necessarily a reliable indicator of future returns. The fact is that we simply don’t elect congressional representatives as president, except under unusual circumstances. Americans generally demand high-level executive experience. We prefer elected executive experience, but we will occasionally accept a military general that has a reputation as a war hero.
Of our 43 presidents (counting Cleveland twice for his two separate terms), 28 have had high-level elected executive experience (governor, VP, or president). Of the remaining 15, eight had significant executive experience as military generals. Four of those generals (Washington, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower) enjoyed reputations as popular war heroes. Of the remaining eight, four had served as U.S. Senators (J.Q. Adams, Buchanan, Harding, and Kennedy). The remaining four (Madison, Lincoln, Taft, and Hoover) are special cases.
Like Ron Paul, Madison and Lincoln had served as congressional representatives. Madison is a special case because he is considered to be the father of the U.S. Constitution. He had executive experience through his service as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and as Secretary of State. At the time of his service, Secretary of State was second in line to succeed the President (behind the VP). It was held in higher esteem as a political position than it is today.
Lincoln is the only former congressional representative to achieve the presidency without high-level elected or appointed executive experience. But the election of 1860 was unusual. Lincoln had been a major player in the rise of the newly created Republican Party from the ashes of the old Whig Party. He had little opposition to his nomination. Democrats contentiously split their vote over the slave issue between Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckenridge. John C. Bell, who had attempted to keep the Whig Party together, came in fourth place. Lincoln won 59.5% of the electoral vote with only 39.8% of the popular vote. The two Democratic candidates together garnered 47.6% of the popular vote.
No Executive or Legislative Experience
Neither Taft nor Hoover had held a high elected office or served in the military, which makes their cases very unusual. Taft had long been Theodore Roosevelt’s right-hand man. He had executive experience serving as the appointed Governor-General of the Philippines. He was, in effect, elected to the wildly popular TR’s third presidential term. Although he never really wanted to be president, this explains his election. Oddly enough, he lost his second election thanks to TR’s meddling.
This leaves Hoover. He was a world-famous mining engineer who had made a fortune and he was known to use that fortune generously for humanitarian means. Although he didn’t need to work, he turned to public service, serving as Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge. He leveraged this relatively minor position and into a high-profile job where he often overshadowed the presidents under whom he served. In the 1928 election, Hoover had little opposition in gaining the GOP nomination. He faced Democrat Al Smith, who suffered from a certain amount of anti-Catholic prejudice (which Kennedy later had to overcome). Smith also unfortunately sounded like the stereotypical gangster portrayals popularized in the newfangled radio programs of the day. The country was prosperous and Coolidge was popular. These factors all contributed to Hoover’s landslide victory. His popularity took a dive as the Great Depression took hold and deepened, leading to his landslide loss to FDR in 1932.
None of the factors that favored the four outliers listed above apply to the 2008 presidential campaign. Not meaning to imply any disrespect, but Ron Paul is frankly no James Madison. Paul did not help found and build the GOP, as did Lincoln. Unlike Lincoln, Paul cannot count on being the shoo-in party nominee. Nor are the Democrats likely to split their vote between two or more candidates, as occurred in 1860. We do not have a popular president, let alone a wildly popular president that is willing to anoint Paul as his successor, as was the case with Taft. Nor are the political conditions today anything like those of 1928 that produced Hoover’s nomination and electoral victory.
Here’s the deal. Americans want their president (and presidential candidates) to have a track record of a certain level of executive competency. Jim Geraghty argues in this NRO article that the problem conservatives today have with George W. Bush is not necessarily his less conservative ideals, but “what is now incontrovertible evidence that Bush is a poor manager.” Geraghty discusses five specific factors that are meant to highlight Bush’s managerial incompetence. It’s worth the read to consider his arguments.
History shows that the resumes of our presidents are replete with high-level executive experience. What about those that lost to these presidents? Not so much. 27 of 54 runners up had no previous high-level elected or military executive experience.
We have only elected two presidents that had no national legislative experience, had held no high-level executive office, and had not served in the military. Neither faced any serious primary opposition within their party. We have elected only two presidents who’s highest elected position had been congressional representative. Both of these were highly unusual cases. And we have elected only four former U.S. Senators who had no high-level executive experience. What does this say for the nine (maybe 10) senators (and former senators) that are running (or planning to run) in next year’s election?
Senator John Quincy Adams won the presidency in 1824 by a vote in the House of Representatives after no candidate received a majority of the electoral vote. Adams had received 30.9% of the popular vote and 84 of 261 electoral votes. However, Andrew Jackson had received 41.3% of the popular vote and 99 electoral votes. The remainder of the votes were split between William Crawford and Henry Clay. It is notable that Jackson came back in 1828 to beat Adams in a landslide victory. So, Adams’ 1824 victory can be considered a fluke.
Democratic Senator James Buchanan won in 1856 with 45.3% of the popular vote and 174 of 296 electoral votes when the Whig Party was dying and the Republican Party was brand new, which split the opposition vote. Republican Senator (and former General and explorer) John C. Fremont pulled in 33.1% of the popular vote and 114 electoral votes. Whig Former President (and VP) Millard Fillmore came in third with 21.6% of the popular vote and only eight electoral votes. We have nothing like a three-way split going on now.
The GOP nominated Harding in 1920 after 10 rounds of hard fought balloting at its convention. The GOP had no heir apparent, and Harding came out of the first round with less than 7% of the vote. After much back-room wrangling and much convention floor maneuvering, Harding finished the 10th round with over 70% of the vote. Harding won the 1920 election in a massive landslide victory that was a hostile response to Wilson’s management of WWI and its aftermath. Wilson had become extremely unpopular and the economy was in a serious recession. Harding also outspent his opponent by a ratio of eight to one.
Finally, in 1960, Vice President Nixon faced Senator Kennedy. Nixon had national-level elected executive experience, but Kennedy did not. Nixon was the VP to a fairly popular President Eisenhower. He faced little primary opposition, while Kennedy had to work hard for his party’s nomination. All of these factors seemed to give Nixon the edge. But Nixon was unlikable, while Kennedy was charismatic. Eisenhower provided little support for Nixon and even made statements that suggested that Nixon had garnered little executive experience from his two terms as VP. Kennedy understood the new medium of television while Nixon did not, which harmed Nixon in their first nationally televised debate. Nixon squandered valuable campaigning time in states he had no chance of winning. The November vote was very close. Some still claim that voter fraud in Texas and Illinois tilted the electoral vote to Kennedy. Nixon saved the country from controversy by choosing not to contest the outcome.
Of the four who had no high-level executive experience and whose highest office had been U.S. Senator prior to becoming President, one was a fluke and one benefited from a three-way race. Don’t look for a duplication of either of those situations next year. We’re unlikely to see a repeat of 1960 in 2008. We already saw something similar in 2000. However, we could see something like 1920 next year. We’ve got an unpopular president and an unpopular war, and neither party has an heir apparent; although, our economy isn’t in the toilet like it was back then. Perhaps the situation is right for another senator with no high-level executive experience to win the White House. While it doesn’t look good for the senators statistically (9.3% chance), the history of 2008 is up for grabs.
Back to my original point. If we exclude the unusual circumstances of the 1808 and 1860 elections, a person such as Ron Paul who has no high-level executive experience and whose highest elected office has been congressional representative has a statistically zero percent chance of winning the presidency in 2008.
Just for argument’s sake, let’s toss aside history and statistics. Look carefully at the array of GOP voters that are or will be part of the primary and nominating process. Then look at the array of GOP candidates, including their respective levels of executive competency and political prowess. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the stars and planets would all have to align perfectly and reality would have to take a vacation for Ron Paul to rise to the top of the heap and win the GOP nomination. It’s just not going to happen.
Some pundits would just as soon have the lower-tier candidates drop out of the race and reduce the noise. I’d rather have them in the race giving voice to issues that would otherwise be ignored by the top-tier candidates. It is within the realm of possibilities that one of these individuals could win. But it’s highly improbable. I think it’s great for people to cheer on their favorite lower-tier candidate. But let’s not delude ourselves, folks.