Jonathan Bernstein is already on today’s lazy column about how Barack Obama is inferior to some former president who Got Things Done (today it’s Woodrow Wilson). He gets in a lot of good points, but one thing I’d add is how silly this is: “All sides should remember Wilson and the single factor that determines the country’s glorious successes or crushing failures: cooperation.”
This is rich considering that Woodrow Wilson was likely the least bipartisan president we’ve ever had. Moreso than G.W. Bush, who lest we forget was well able to secure Democratic support for the Iraq War and his first round of tax cuts. Moreso than LBJ, who got quite a bit of GOP support on Civil Rights. This is what makes the “let’s sit around like Woodrow Wilson and Republicans did” argument so incredibly baffling. According to Edmund Morris’s Colonel Roosevelt, Wilson simply disliked and mistrusted Republicans and didn’t want to work with them, which was the factor that led to his disastrous 1918 “open letter” to the public prior to the midterm election, which included stuff like this:
Spokesmen of the Republican party are urging you to elect a Republican Congress in order to back up and support the President. But, even if they should in this impose upon some credulous voters on this side of the water, they would impose on no one on the other side. It is well understood there as well as here that Republican leaders desire not so much to support the President as to control him.
The peoples of the allied countries with whom we are associated against Germany are quite familiar with tile significance of elections. They would find it very difficult to believe that the voters of the United States had chosen to support their President by electing to the Congress, a majority controlled by those who are not in fact in sympathy with the attitude and action of the Administration.
It’s widely agreed that the letter, ironically, was the single most important factor that led to a Republican Congress during Wilson’s last years in office, and that not publishing it would at least have allowed Democrats to hold the Senate. It’s pure Wilson, too, just someone who couldn’t stop and couldn’t alter his course, animated as he was by visions of righteousness from which any deviation was essentially a sin. This led, of course, to both his greatest successes and greatest failures, which correspond almost exactly to the years of his first and second terms, respectively. It also led to lots of sabotage of his own priorities–the Republican Senate killed the Versailles Treaty, which was strongly against Wilson’s interest. If he’d just shut up, the path toward American joining the League of Nations would have been clearer.
There’s also the irony of encouraging the president to act politically more like someone who saw his entire legacy repudiated at the ballot box. Wilson’s drive, moral clarity and optimism turned to close-minded bullying by the end of his presidency, and the president who ushered in an era of idealism and progress eventually wound up standing for censorship, authoritarian violations of due process like the Palmer Raids, suspicion and deep public unease. The people-powered insurgent rapidly became a cross between Charles Foster Kane and Joe McCarthy, fracturing the progressive movement and the nation simultaneously. That the successor to this intense intellectual was a braindead, mediocre good old boy was but the symbol of the extent of the nation’s rejection of Wilson, and progressivism and Democrats were simultaneously taken out to the electoral woodshed due to association. That anyone would find this worth emulating is bizarre.
Still, imagining how a more Wilsonesque Obama might have operated is fairly easy. He would not have bothered to negotiate for a “grand bargain” with the GOP, or over healthcare reform. Both of these were big mistakes, and more of a partisan, Wilsonian sensibility would have been welcome in both cases. But it’s difficult to imagine a more inflexible purist type getting a better healthcare bill passed. Anyway, who cares, because the person who wrote the article is trying to turn Wilson into yet another bipartisan compromiser, which he certainly was not. Columnists love writing facile columns about how our contemporary leaders just aren’t up to the standards of history, and since Lincoln didn’t win a bunch of Oscars (and it’s been out for months now), we’ve got to find someone else. Which, okay, fine. Just actually pick someone for whom the comparison isn’t a joke! (Then again, at least I’ve yet to see an article talking about how the theft of the 1876 election was an example of successful bipartisanship, though that might be next week’s comparison…)
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