Feat of Clay

Joe Biden isn't the second coming of mythic FDR. He's older

I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. My newsletter about politics and the study of politics takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:

Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.

This week, we’re talking about how Joe Biden could be like the most important person to never become president.

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Feat of Clay

Joe Biden is one of the great institutionalists in American political history. Before his election to the presidency, he served 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice president, and if we count “presidential candidate” as part of public life we can add another couple of years to his time in public life on a national scale.

Few modern presidents—or elected officials of any kind—approach that longevity. Of the preceding seven presidents, only one (George H.W. Bush) had any substantial federal officeholding experience before becoming president (Obama’s cup of coffee in the Senate doesn’t count). Among all presidents, Biden’s experience is remarkably extensive, making even Lyndon Johnson (12 years in the House, 12 years in the Senate, eight as president and vice president) look relatively unprepared for the job. When racking up experience, it helps, of course, to be the oldest president ever elected.

To find analogues for such a long career, we have to turn to lists of nineteenth-century giants, like John Quincy Adams (47 years of service as ambassador, legislator, Cabinet secretary, and president), Andrew Jackson (in high civil and military office, and permanently prominent, essentially his whole life), and, most important, the “Great Triumvirate” of Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, and Henry Clay. More than any American political figure in decades, if not literally the almost two centuries since their time, Biden represents the attitudes and practices of federal political institutions.

Unlike any of the Great Triumvirate, of course, Senator Biden became president. By the traditional rules of pundit history, that means that his comparison set is limited to other presidents. This probably explains the waves of comparison to FDR, a president whose domestic ambitions Biden was once talked of as matching and whose international precedents Biden seems temperamentally inclined to protect. Yet Biden faces numerous disadvantages FDR did not, starting with the continuing absence of any crisis to spark action and, more important, the lack of overwhelming legislative majorities willing to pass his bills practically sight unseen. It seems worthwhile, then, to consider Biden’s ambitions and prospects by comparison with his fellow institutionalists—in particular, Henry Clay.

Henry Clay was never president but could have been—especially in his fifth and final race, in 1844, when a small splittist group of abolitionists swung the votes of New York state, and thus the electoral college, to his pro-slavery foe, James K. Polk. (Although himself a slave owner and supporter of forced labor, Clay, a charter member of the American Colonization Society, did not rabidly favor the expansion of U.S. power on behalf of slavery—in 1844, at least.)

Clay believed in the power of compromise and the potential of government. A consummate insider, he played a pivotal role in organizing the anti-Jackson faction that became the Whig party. In policy terms, the new party was a bit of a mess, but leading an unwieldy coalition was a good fit for Clay, personally a charming and inspirational figure who could broker different networks easily. From the Missouri Compromise to the Compromise of 1850, Clay worked to solve conflicts between classes and sections through peaceful means, and if doing so meant preserving human bondage it also postponed carnage. (His vexing lump of contradictory positions in public and private on the slavery question reflected this comfort with compromise.)

The ideas for which he fought hardest, however, were never implemented: the “American System.” This policy, unveiled in 1824 as something of a presidential campaign platform, would have raised taxes (tariffs, specifically) to fund a massive program of internal improvements while protecting the growth of new industrial firms, simultaneously distancing the United States from its traditional dependence on European (British) markets, enhancing state power, and knitting together the regions of the United States through more balanced development and economic links. It was a bid for a form of economic nationalism and dirigisme that would have created a different United States.

Clay carefully crafted the program to offer something to everyone—a masterful compromise intended to overcome divisions and build a better America (with the standard caveat that the interests of Blacks and Indians were very much not included). Had it passed, it likely would have been revolutionary, although one wonders whether it would not have also choked off American access to British capital.

It didn’t pass, although internal improvements (canals, the National Road) were carried out in part by states and in part by the federal government, and various tariff bills did pass in the 1820s (leading, among other outcomes, to the nullification crisis). In offering something for everyone without the benefits of leading an organized party, Clay had neglected to offer something that any given faction would prefer relative to alternative, narrower alternatives. The anti-bank (and anti-federal) mood captured by the Jacksonian movement poisoned the well against any sort of technocratic nationalism, not least because a great many Americans believed that a concentration of wealth in industry and financial institutions required to carry out the system would undermine their own interests.

Compromise, a necessary part of senatorial experience, fares poorly as the banner for a political party. (I’m tempted to add “in an era of division,” but when is it not an era of division? The temperature of political conflict never drops to freezing.) Success for a political platform requires a political party willing to push it through—and even if the long-term stability of a polity requires some degree of respect for others’ opinions, attempted compromise that leads to stalemate dissatisfies everyone without any positive results at all.

Success within an institution requires different temperaments, skills, and conditions than success at driving an institution to suit one’s own agenda. One suspects that decades in an institution can either result in a perfect understanding of that lesson or a perfect failure to understand it, rather than a messy mixture of the two poles. Clay never had the chance to lead from the White House, although his most celebrated rivals—Jackson and Polk—did, and demonstrated that the times in which they ruled were ripe indeed for substantial change. The question, of course, is what lessons nearly a half-century in the public service has left the current president—and whether the conditions that apply today allow him to act on those lessons at all.


What I’m Reading

This week, I’ve been reading How the Beatles Destroyed Rock N’ Roll.

This is the history of popular music I needed. A Twitter follower (since deleted) recommended it to me in response to this post:

The answer, it turns out, was “yes”—but the story is much more complex than that. Wald provides an extensive history of changes in American popular music from the late nineteenth century, when songwriters were king, publishing music was monetized, and almost everyone could play music, to the 1960s, when artists ruled, recordings dominated, and consumption became the most important way that people related to music.

Wald chronicles how economic and technological changes produced what we often take to be simple aesthetic choices. The dominance of dance music emerges from socialization in which dance parlors were one of the few places for young people to meet and touch (in a socially sanctioned way). Steadily, the repertoire of music becomes more professionalized and standardized as recordings make genres and then particular performances dominant. Eventually, the availability of recordings (both as purchased records and through the radio) leads to the equation of one particular interpretation of a song with a particular artist.

Along the way, genres—ragtime, swing, jazz—emerge and are solidified for commercial reasons. One of the interesting long-term trends of this standardization and commercialization is the emergence of a strong racial caste system. Country music and the blues become reified as “white” and “black” genres, respectively, while rock n’ roll and soul, initially closely linked, similarly split into segregated zones. The Beatles, in this way, emerge as the unintentional villains because their highly produced approach to music leads to a clear division between album-oriented rock, a “high” popular culture, that solidifies the racial split and displaces the preceding genre.

Vast in scope, meticulous in detail, and compelling in its presentation, this is an astonishingly revelatory look at history you think you know but probably don’t.