Obama Wasn't the First President Who Hoped to Bridge the Partisan Divide



Ray Raphael is the author of "Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive" (Knopf, 2012)

Obama was not the first president to arrive at the office with hopes of bridging a partisan divide, only to see the center collapse and the chasm widen. George Washington was.

The nation had divided over ratification, and the first president wanted to heal the wounds. Although allied to the Federalists, he broke with them and supported a Bill of Rights to appease Anti-Federalists, who had opposed the new Constitution. Transcendent leadership to check partisan bickering -- that’s exactly what the framers of the Constitution had hoped the president would provide, and that’s why they finally decided, less than two weeks before they adjourned, that the president should not be elected by Congress. They did not want him subject to the “intrigue” and “cabal” they suspected would characterize that body.

Passage of a Bill of Rights did soften dissent, but politics soon turned sour on other fronts. When Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed a tax on whiskey to pay off the nation’s wartime debt, western farmers figured that the money would go straight into the hands of rich bond speculators and resisted. (Think Main Street vs. Wall Street here.) However reluctantly, President Washington found himself riding at the head of the army to suppress the so-called Whiskey Rebellion -- the name Hamilton used to denigrate his opponents.

Hamilton also proposed a national bank, but Attorney General Edmund Randolph and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson believed that was unconstitutional. Washington was caught in the middle. Should he, or should he not, veto the measure? He asked James Madison to draft a veto message but then changed his mind. A Federalist at heart, he wound up backing a design that was intended to protect national credit and stabilize currency.

Internationally, Britain and France were at war, an almost habitual state of affairs. Americans lined up on either side of the conflict, replicating the fault lines opened up by Hamilton’s financial plan. Merchants and coastal communities of the North and East favored Britain, still their main trading partner. Others sided with France, grateful for her support in the War of Independence and mindful of the continuing revolution there. Characteristically, Washington prohibited Americans from supporting the war efforts of either belligerent, but this infuriated the Francophiles, who noted that that Franco-American alliance of 1778 was still in effect and insisted it should be honored. To make matters worse, Madison, Washington’s ally and political confidant for years, questioned the president’s constitutional authority to make such a move on his own and heatedly debated Hamilton, who was always intent on extending executive power. Then Jefferson, furious over Hamilton’s intrusion into foreign affairs, resigned.

The nation was splitting in two directions, with Washington’s own advisors leading the way. Even declaring neutrality was seen as taking sides.

In his farewell address of 1796, President Washington warned against “the spirit of party” with all its “baneful effects,” but his resignation only accentuated the partisan divide. The powers of the presidency had grown during his tenure, and each side now reasoned it must capture the office to get its way. To win, or more importantly not to lose, two opposing parties organized on a national scale. Federalists united behind John Adams, while their opponents, calling themselves Republicans, put forth Thomas Jefferson. A must-win, zero-sum game suddenly colored political life, replete with immoderate slurs: Adams was a closet monarchist, Jefferson a Deist and Jacobin. The middle ground that Washington had hoped to fortify simply disappeared, a casualty of the electoral process. Ever since 1796, presidential elections have focused and heightened partisan tensions.

During the Constitutional Convention, at the very first mention of a chief executive, Charles Pinckney warned against granting that office powers over “peace & war &c.,” for that “would render the Executive a monarchy, of the worst kind, to wit an elective one.” The problem, it turned out, extended beyond specific powers to the very process of electing America’s almost-king. By creating a presidential office that appeared to embody the nation and then requiring an absolute majority of electoral votes to win, they forced political groups to coalesce into two major parties, each putting forth a candidate. Then, with only one major opponent, each party quickly realized it would gain as much by denying votes to the opposition as by winning votes for its own candidate. Negative campaigning became embedded within the bifurcated system that presidential elections helped create.

This simple application of game theory haunts us to this day, impeding attempts by a president to assert transcendent leadership. By the time he (or now possibly she) ascends to office, he/she will be a monarchist or a Jacobin to some significant portion of the population. This is not what the framers intended, but it is what they delivered.

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