We Americans, by and large, believe in fair play. We are a competitive people, who love sporting events. When a fist lands below the belt, or when a contest is otherwise tainted, we become righteously indignant. The integrity of the game is violated. We will not suffer this to happen with impunity. If you doubt it, ask Pete Rose or Barry Bonds.
Most of us understand that politics, like sports, is a rough and tumble business. We know that foul play occurs, but we are still appalled when we see it. That is why, in our politics, the appearance of wrongdoing can be just as damaging as actual wrongdoing. Machiavelli may be alive and well in the nation's Capitol, but woe be unto those who are caught practicing his principles.
Allow me to summon an example of this truth from our colorful history. Consider the 1824 presidential race. There were four contenders: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Henry Clay who is pictured above.
Andrew Jackson, below, had won Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, and the states of the Southwest. Except for New Jersey, he had done so by landslide margins. In several states -- Maryland, Ohio, and Missouri -- he had finished a strong second. He had garnered a percentage of the overall vote nearly ten points higher than his nearest competitor, John Quincy Adams. There was no doubt about it: outside of New England, which was Adams's base of support, the American people wanted General Jackson as their next president. The tally of electoral votes was Jackson 66; Adams 59; Crawford 39; and Clay 33.
The election had to be decided in the House of Representatives. The three most successful candidates would vie against one another there, but the fourth candidate, Henry Clay, who had been eliminated from the race by finishing last would, ironically, become the kingmaker. He was the Speaker of the House.
The rumor mill was just as active then as it is now, and word began to circulate that Clay was willing to support Adams for president if Clay were appointed secretary of state. Clay vehemently denied the nasty allegation.
But when Adams was elected president thanks mostly to Clay's maneuverings, the speaker was then offered and accepted the secretary of state prize. Henry Clay, one of the most astute politicians ever to serve in Congress, had committed what historian Sean Wilentz calls "one of the greatest errors in American political history." Clay had "disregarded the cardinal political maxim that the appearance of wrongdoing can be just as damaging as actual wrongdoing." He was perceived as swaying the result of a presidential election based upon his own personal political ambitions, and he could never rid himself of the stench of this alleged "corrupt bargain." It followed him for the rest of his life.
Knowing that deceitful political deals are made is different from being caught or suspected by the American people making one. Idealism always dies hard in this country.
Fast forward to our own shining moment in time. Barack Obama, in splendid rhetoric, lifted American spirits by promising a "new politics." The "chosen one" had spoken! There would be a fresh openness in government, he promised, and no more business as usual. The fact that he was not a Washington insider and was an African-American lent credibility to his promises. But when, like Sisyphus, he began attempting to roll the boulder of universal government-guaranteed healthcare to the mountaintop, there was a remarkable transparence. The more Americans learned of his healthcare plan, the less they desired it, or approved of his job performance. Yet he continued the push, negotiating vigorously in secret, behind closed doors. Several Democratic senators entertained doubts about the plan. But, in order to alleviate their doubts and to win their votes, Mr. Obama agreed to provide enormous monetary benefits to their states in the approximate amounts of $1.2 billion ("the Cornhusker kickback") and $300 million ("the Louisiana purchase"). If these deals were not enough to push his healthcare plan over the top, he agreed to waive the proposed 40 percent excise tax on union workers' "cadillac" healthcare plans at a cost to taxpayers of $60 billion! All three widely perceived as dishonest, corrupt bargains!
On Tuesday, January 19, in a special election, Massachusetts, a deep blue state, which in 1972 supported George McGovern for president, fired a loud warning shot over the bow of Mr. Obama's ship. The state elected its first Republican senator in over forty years. Scott Brown ran as "the forty-first vote" against Obamacare. With Brown's swearing-in, the new president's healthcare initiative will be dead as a door-nail. Perhaps Mr. Obama will be able to buy off a Republican senator, but it must be a senator who is very tired of his job and perhaps even in search of another country in which to live.
Precisely one year into his term of office, Barack Obama is unquestionably in deep political trouble. The American people are beginning to see him as one to whom fair dealing means little or nothing. He has violated their sense of propriety by conspicuously breaking promises and engaging in "corrupt bargains." For a man with a brilliant intellect, he acts like a blundering neophyte. The way he is perceived playing the political game is disgraceful – to himself, to the office he holds, and to the American people. It is sure to become part of his "messianic" legacy.
January 20, 2010