- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades got a lot of reporters scratching their heads last week when he suggested that James K. Polk could be a historical model for Mitt Romney’s presidency in an interview with the Huffington Post:
[W]hen I asked [Matt] Rhoades in July how Romney would govern if elected, and what Romney might do with the budget and entitlement reform plans Ryan had already outlined, Rhoades’ eyes lit up. He gave me a name: James Polk.
Don’t Yawn. There’s a history lesson in that name. Rhoades and the rest of the members of Romney’s inner circle think a Romney presidency could look much like the White House tenure of the 11th U.S. president.
Polk, who served from 1845 to 1849, presided over the expansion of the U.S. into a coast-to-coast nation, annexing Texas and winning the Mexican-American war for territories that also included New Mexico and California. He reduced trade barriers and strengthened the Treasury system.
And he was a one-term president.
Polk is an allegory for Rhoades: He did great things, and then exited the scene, and few remember him. That, Rhoades suggested, could be Romney’s legacy as well.
Citing Polk as a model for your presidency feels a bit like a hipster’s record recommendation. (“Oh, you’re into Andrew Jackson? He’s okay, I guess, but you should really check out Polk.”) But it’s interesting to consider exactly what a Polkian presidency would look like.
It’s certainly true that given the extroadinary political changes that took place under his presidency, the 11th president doesn’t get nearly enough attention. (Nor, for that matter, do any of the presidents between Jackson and Lincoln.) It’s certainly I’m no Polk scholar but having recently read journalist and historian Robert W. Merry’s very good A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent , I had a few quick thoughts on the pros and cons of the Polk model:
An exceptional exceptionalist: You want to talk about national greatness conservatism? In just four years, Polk — Andrew Jackson’s protege — expanded the size of the United States by a third, incorporating Texas, the Northwest, and and Southwest. Polk envisioned the United States as a continental power with Pacific ports giving it access to emerging Asian markets. And in just four years he made it happen. The Monroe doctrine could just as easily be called the Polk doctrine, as the Tennessean repeatedly took action to prevent European influence in the Western Hemisphere.
Getting it done: Polk came into office in 1844 with four main goals. On the international front, he wanted to reach a favorable agreement with Britain on the Oregon territory, which was then in an ambiguous state of joint governance between the two countries. He also wanted to acquire California from Mexico. On the domestic side, he wanted to reduce tariffs and create and independent treasury. (Yes, he was a free-market guy as well.) All these goals were accomplished. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put Polk in the same category as much better known figures including Thomas Jefferson, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, as presidents who were “able to impose their own priorities on the country.”
Leading from the front: By 1844 it was fairly obviously that Oregon would fall into U.S. hands eventually. Americans were migrating west at a rapid rate and vastly outnumbered the British in the territory. Many argued at the time that the U.S. should simply let the demographics run their course, but as Merry writes, “Patience was not a trait to be found in the personality of James Polk… he wasn’t about to leave to successors the accomplishment he could himself obtain.” In his inaugural address, Polk asserted America’s “clear and unquestionable” title to Oregon and took a hard line in territorial negotiations that brought the two countries to the brink of their third war in less than 70 years. In the end, Britain would back down and the U.S. acquired the territory that would become the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Left on top: A compromise candidate after a contentious Democratic primary, Polk pledged to only stay in office for one term and stuck to it, despite allies urging him to run again. As Ross Douthat writes, “he’s a fascinating figure precisely because seems to have chosen retirement less out of necessity than out of a genuine belief that his service to the republic was complete.” His health may also have played a role: He died just three months after leaving office.
More war-war than jaw-jaw: Polk’s confrontational approach to the Oregon question looks shrewd in retrospect, but the course of U.S. history might have turned out quite differently if the U.S. had found itself fighting simultaneous wars with Mexico and Britain. In the case of Mexico, Polk seemed to recognize that a war would be the only way to accomplish his territorial aims and set out to create the conditions for one, most notably by ordering Gen. Zachary Taylor to march troops into disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande in January 1846, setting in motion a series of events that would eventually lead to war. Polk may not have been the most aggressive hawk of his era — there were members of his cabinet that favored the outright conquest of Mexico — but the Mexican war was about as close as the U.S. ever got to an outright war of conquest, not a practice that even the most aggresive hawks usually endorse.
Bad manager: The Polk administration was a mess. His ostensible allies in the Democratic congressional delegation were divided over the war — and increasingly over slavery — his own secretary of State consistently undermined him, and his generals and diplomats were often outright insubordinate. The Polk cabinet leaked like a sieve, with confidential information frequently appearing the press, generally traced back to Secretary of State James Buchanan, who violated a pledge to Polk not to campaign for president while still secretary. Despite Buchanan’s behind the scenes machinations and frequent failures to carry out Polk’s orders, the president repeatedly backed off from threats to fire him. Mitt Romney may “like being able to fire people,” but Merry writes that Polk “lacked the fortitude for the face-to-face encounter that must attend a dismissal.
Civil military relations weren’t that great either. Polk’s senior generals, Winfield “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott and Zachary Taylor frequently clashed with the president, disobeying orders and engaging in unauthorized freelance diplomacy with the Mexicans, and Taylor actually left the battlefield to campaign for — and win — the presidency on a Whig ticket. The Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican war was negotiated by an envoy who Polk had fired weeks earlier. Polk’s bizarrely effective brand of organized chaos would seem an odd model for Romney, a candidate who has sold himself as businesslike and managerial.
Missed the big picture: Polk was mostly uninterested in the question of increasingly controversial question of slavery throughout his presidency, focusing instead on the goal of territorial expansion that he believed would bring Americans together in the goal of national greatness. He reacted with annoyance when an antislavery congressional Democrat introduced the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in the territories won from Mexico, and seemed flummoxed that North-South disputes were inserting themselves into the war debate. By the end of his presidency, abolitionist Democrats had split off to form the Free Soil party — later absorbed into the Republicans — and the fault lines had developed for the conflict that would literally tear the country apart 13 years later. It’s not clear that Polk could have done anything to prevent this, but his lack of interest in the issue seems remarkably shortsighted in retrospect.
(Also, if Romney adopts Polk as a model, the GOP may have to drop the “party of Lincoln” line before Honest Abe turns over in his grave. In the view of Lincoln, then a freshman Whig legislator who idolized Polk’s longtime rival Henry Clay, the president had deliberately instigated the war with Mexico and “talked like an insane man” with a “mind taxed beyond its power.”)
Other than a vague free-market hawkishness, it’s hard to divine what a Polkian approach to contemporary issues such as Iran’s nuclear program or healthcare costs might entail. But give some credit to Rhoades, a discussion of the merits of the Polk presidency is more interesting than hearing about Reagan for the 47,000th time.