June 16, 2008: It’s the economy again, stupid as both candidates tout their plans

The week that was….

  • June 16, 2008: Former Vice President Al Gore endorses Obama.
  • June 15, 2008: McCain cancels a fundraiser in Texas after questions concerning the host Texas oilman, Clayton “Claytie” Williams’ 1990 jokes about rape. Many black conservative consider voting for Obama because he is making history as the first black to capture a Presidential nomination.
  • June, 14, 2008: John McCain publicly opposes the Supreme Court decision that would allow suspected terrorist detainees the right to appeal for their release in federal courts.
  • June 13, 2008: Obama proposes taxing incomes above $250,000. The McCain, Obama camps fail to agree on the town hall sessions, McCain wants ten, Obama wants just one around July 4th.
  • June 12, 2008: The Obama campaign creates a website http://www.fightthesmears.com to debunk campaign myths after Michelle Obama was accused of using the racial slur “whitey.”
  • June 11, 2008: at the start of the general campaign, Obama is the favorite to win Iowa in the election. Obama’s adviser and top vetter for Vice Presidential candidates, Jim Johnson resigned amid calls of a loan scandal.
  • June 10, 2008: McCain, Obama criticize each other’s plans to rejuvenate the economy, jabs traded on taxes.
  • June 9, 2008: Nominees John McCain and Barack Obama negotiate to meet for 10 hall meetings in the next couple of months, but reject NYC Mayor Bloomberg and ABC’s offer to host the first one on grounds that they do not want just one network airing it.

The Stats

  • June 12, 2008: Gallup Poll Daily reports Barack Obama leads John McCain 48 percent to 42 percent.

Historians Comment

  • Blair Kelley a historian of social movements at North Carolina State University in Raleigh on “How Clinton and Obama boosted feminism, civil rights The primary contest helped both of the historical causes, though some tensions erupted”:
    “Both Obama and Hillary Clinton have transformed what people, from all walks of life, believe is possible.” – Christian Science Monitor, 6-17-08
  • Norman McRae on “Obama’s candidacy is writing history”:
    Obama, win or lose, will become the symbol. But Detroit historian Norman McRae wants more. “I think that every African American should go to the polls and vote for Barack Obama,” he said. McCrae, who first voted for Harry S. Truman in 1948, is 82. He said that Obama “validates all the activities from Frederick Douglass to Jesse Jackson, from Ida B. Wells to now. It validates all of them.” – Detroit Free Press, 6-15-08
  • Jeremy Varon, a historian at Drew University on “McCain ad asserts his hatred of war Senator shifts tone to draw moderates”:
    “To me, the ad is much more playing off Bush than playing off Obama,” said Jeremy Varon, a historian at Drew University in Madison, N.J., who has studied antiwar movements. “The point of this is for McCain to say: ‘I’m very different from my predecessor even if I want to fight the same war.'” – Boston Globe, 6-11-08
  • Robert Dallek on “Obama rebuts rumors on new Web site”:
    “There is a line between scurrilous nonsense and serious discussion, that laps over, especially in this day and age, when you’ve got all this electronic media and these blogs and this kind of fanatical impulse to bring down the opposing candidate…. You never know what’s going to take hold… Dallek, the historian, said it was not surprising to see the latest swirl of political rumor and innuendo. “There have always been rumors,” he said: “That Andrew Jackson was a polygamist, that Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child, that James G. Blaine was a corruptionist.” Some claims – such as those in 1960 that John F. Kennedy was a womanizer – were even true, he added. – International Herald Tribune, 6-11-08
  • Robert Dallek, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles on “Historians See Little Chance for McCain”:
    “These things go in cycles. The public gets tired of one approach to politics. There is always a measure of optimism in this country, so they turn to the other party.” – Politico.com, 6-15-08
  • James Campbell, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo who specializes in campaigns and elections on “Historians See Little Chance for McCain”:
    “Open-seat elections are somewhat different, so the referendum aspect is somewhat muted. McCain would be in much better shape if Bush’s approval rating were at 45 to 50 percent. But the history is that in-party candidates are not penalized or rewarded to the same degree as incumbents.” – Politico.com, 6-15-08
  • Sidney Milkis, a professor of presidential politics at the University of Virginia on “Historians See Little Chance for McCain”: “I can’t think of an upset where the underdog faced quite the odds that McCain faces in this election.” Even “Truman didn’t face as difficult a political context as McCain.” – Politico.com, 6-15-08
  • Allan Lichtman, an American University presidential historian who ran in a Maryland Democratic senatorial primary in 2006 on “Historians See Little Chance for McCain”:
    “This should be an overwhelming Democratic victory.” Lichtman, whose forecasting model has correctly predicted the last six presidential popular vote winners, predicts that this year, “Republicans face what have always been insurmountable historical odds.” His system gives McCain a score on par with Jimmy Carter’s in 1980. – Politico.com, 6-15-08
  • Joan Hoff, a professor at Montana State University and former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency on “Historians See Little Chance for McCain”:
    “McCain shouldn’t win it,” said presidential historian She compared McCain’s prospects to those of Hubert Humphrey, whose 1968 loss to Richard Nixon resulted in large part from the unpopularity of sitting Democratic president Lyndon Johnson. – Politico.com, 6-15-08
  • Allan J. Lichtman’s KEYS TO THE ELECTION in “Political patterns favor Obama, scholars say “:
    Historian Allan J. Lichtman is renowned in political circles for his “13 keys to the White House.” Over nearly a century and a half, no candidate from the incumbent party has won the presidency if six or more of the keys are going against him. Key 1: Party mandate. After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House than it did after the previous midterm elections.
    Key 2: Contest. There is no serious contest for the incumbent-party nomination.
    Key 3: Incumbency. The incumbent-party candidate is the sitting president.
    Key 4: Third party. There is no significant third-party or independent campaign.
    Key 5: Short-term economy. The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
    Key 6: Long-term economy. Real per-capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.
    Key 7: Policy change. The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
    Key 8: Social unrest. There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
    Key 9: Scandal. The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
    Key 10: Foreign/military failure. The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
    Key 11: Foreign/military success. The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
    Key 12: Incumbent charisma. The incumbent-party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
    Key 13: Challenger charisma. The challenging-party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero. – www.signonsandiego.com, 6-16-08
  • Alan Schroeder: Historian Imagines McCain-Obama Debate – NPR, 6-17-08
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin on “Next for Clinton: Vice President? Senate? Governor?” – NPR, 6-5-08
  • Richard Norton Smith on “Town Hall Meetings for McCain, Obama?” – NPR, 6-5-08
  • Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and former chair of the Civil Rights Commission on “Obama: History in the Making” – NPR, 6-4-08

On the Campaign Trail….

    Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Change That Works for You, June 9, 2008 …I’ve often said that this election represents a defining moment in our history. On major issues like the war in Iraq or the warming of our planet, the decisions we make in November and over the next few years will shape a generation, if not a century.That is especially true when it comes to our economy….

    We will begin this general election campaign by traveling across the country for the next few weeks to talk about what specifically we need to do to build a 21st economy that works for working Americans. I will speak with economic experts and advisors at the end of the tour, but first I want to speak with you, and hear about your thoughts and your struggles in the places where you live and work. And at each stop, I will take the opportunity to lay out the very real and very serious differences on the economy between myself and Senator McCain….

    This is the choice you will face in November. You can vote for John McCain, and see a continuation of Bush economic policies – more tax cuts to the wealthy, more corporate tax breaks, more mountains of debt, and little to no relief for families struggling with the rising costs of everything from health care to a college education.

    But I don’t think that is the future we want. The Americans I’ve met over the last sixteen months in town halls and living rooms; on farms and front porches – they may come from different places and have different backgrounds, but they hold common hopes and dream the same simple dreams. They know government can’t solve all their problems, and they don’t expect it to. They believe in personal responsibility, and hard work, and self-reliance. They don’t like seeing their tax dollars wasted.

  • Remarks by John McCain at the NFIB and eBay 2008 National Small Business Summit, June 10, 2008…Now that we know who I will be facing in the general election, the real debate over economic policy can begin. And as you may have heard, Senator Obama and I might well be meeting soon in a series of town hall discussions. Just the two of us, in direct conversation with voters. No need to turn it into a big media-run production with process questions from reporters, a spin room, and all the rest of it. To keep things friendly, I also suggested that my opponent and I travel to these town hall meetings together in the same plane.Our disagreements in these town hall meetings will be civil and friendly, but they will also be clear for all to see. On tax policy, health-care reform, trade, government spending, and a long list of other issues, we offer very different choices to the American people. And those choices will have very different consequences for American workers and small business owners.

    No matter which of us wins in November, there will be change in Washington. The question is what kind of change? Will we enact the single largest tax increase since the Second World War as my opponent proposes, or will we keep taxes low for families and employers? This election offers Americans a very distinct choice about what kind of change we will have. This is especially true for the small business community.

    Let me speak to you about the change I will seek….

    My goal, however, is not to denigrate government but to make it better, not to deride it but to restore its good name. Government should be on your side, not in your way. It will be hard work, but it is a cause worthy of our best efforts. And if we do it well, in the right spirit, it will be because we have again put our country’s interests before the interests of parties, bureaucracies and self-interest. And then we will finally reclaim the confidence of the people we serve.

  • Former Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Al Gore in an email…, June 16, 2008
    Dear Friend,A few hours from now I will step on stage in Detroit, Michigan to announce my support for Senator Barack Obama. From now through Election Day, I intend to do whatever I can to make sure he is elected President of the United States.

    Over the next four years, we are going to face many difficult challenges — including bringing our troops home from Iraq, fixing our economy, and solving the climate crisis. Barack Obama is clearly the candidate best able to solve these problems and bring change to America.

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February 7, 1839: Henry Clay declares “I had rather be right than president.”

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor / Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University.

HNN, Monday, February 4, 2008

On this day in history…. February 7, 1839 Henry Clay declares in the United States Senate “I had rather be right than president.”

The venerable politician and statesman Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky believed his time to win the Presidency would finally be ripe in 1840. There were many obstacles to his winning the Whig Party’s nomination. One of the most contentious issues in the country in the antebellum period was slavery. Clay tried to take a centrist position, but accusations flew in both the North and the South that he favored extremes. In the North he was accused of “being ultra” in favor of Southern slaveholders. In the South he was accused of being an abolitionist who plotted secretly to abolish slavery. (Remini, 525) As the historian Robert Remini explains, “It may have occurred to Clay that his apparent middle-of- the-road position invited attacks from both sides of the slavery question.” (Remini, 525) Clay felt the charges that he was an abolitionist were detrimental to his chances for the presidency, and he needed to clarify his views on the slavery question. But he intended to stick to his views regardless of the political consequences. As he famously said, “I had rather be right than president.”

In order eventually to capture the nomination he needed support from Southern Whigs, but at the same time, he needed support from the Northern Quakers who were passive abolitionists. The most important aspect was to distinguish himself from the most extreme abolitionists, the “ultras” which he did in a Senate speech on February 7, 1839. Clay’s speech, “Petitions for the Abolition of Slavery,” supposedly addressed a petition by Washington DC’s residents to abolish slavery in the district. Clay actually wrote the petition himself.

The speech was Clay at his worse, which his supporters lamented. As Carl Schurz writes, “It was an apology for his better self. Formerly he had spoken as a born anti-slavery man, who to his profound regret found himself compelled to make concessions to slavery. Now he appeared as one inclined to deplore the attacks on slavery no less, if not more, than the existence of slavery itself.” (Schurz, 164)

In the speech, Clay claimed the only thing he had in common with the abolitionists was “abhorrence of slavery,” but their positions were entirely different, and in no way did he identify with them. Clay hoped this would put the speculation to rest that he harbored secret abolitionist desires. He laid out in the speech the history of the “peculiar institution,” the constitutional and legal questions surrounding it, and the course of action that should be taken to resolve slavery. It was here that he distinguished himself most from the abolitionists while attacking their solution to the slavery problem.

As Remini writes, Clay charged that abolitionists were “setting back emancipation half a century” by their agitation. (Remini, 526) Still, he believed that emancipation was not the answer. Clay claimed he did not believe that blacks and whites could live in racial harmony, as abolitionists claimed. As Thomas Brown writes, Clay believed that the “Freed slaves would flood the North, compete with white laborers, and drive down their wages, or the country, would be convulsed by interracial warfare as blacks and whites sought to preserve the purity and separateness of the races.” (Brown, 144) Clay was concerned that a power struggle would lead to a war between the races, especially since the slaves outnumbered whites in some Southern states. Clay believed that this power struggle would lead to Civil War, and suggested that the status quo was the best approach to take to the slavery question. “It is not better for both parties that the existing state of things should be preserved, instead of exposing them to the horrible strifes and contests which would inevitably attend immediate abolition.” (Remini, 526)

According to Clay “time” was the solution that would eventually end slavery, stating, “Providence will cure all-abolition nothing. It may ruin all; it can save none.” (Remini, 526) He then proceeded to make a plea to the ultra-abolitionists to cease their crusade for the sake of the country. “I beseech the abolitionists themselves, solemnly to pause in their mad and fatal course,” he stated. Clay continued: “Amid the infinite variety objects of humanity and benevolence which invite the employment of their energies, let them select some one more harmless, that does not threaten to deluge our country in blood.” (Remini, 526)

The reactions to Clay’s speech were far ranging. For the most part the speech boosted Southerners’ opinion of Clay. As Shurz writes, “Clay received his reward — or punishment — immediately.” (Shurz, 166) After he finished speaking Senator John C. Calhoun, from South Carolina, lauded Clay, praising him for understanding the dangers of the abolitionist movement. Carl Schurz in his biography of Clay believed Calhoun stood up “as if to accept his surrender.” However, Remini describes Cahoun’s enthusiasm as “So spontaneous, so sincere, so fervent … that some wondered if another political alliance between northern money and southern cotton had been struck.” (Remini, 526) This alluded to the “corrupt bargain” of 1825, which handed John Quincy Adams the Presidency despite the fact that Andrew Jackson won the popular vote.

Calhoun proclaimed, “I heard the Senator from Kentucky with pleasure. His speech will have a happy effect, and will do much to consummate what had already been so happily begun and successfully carried on to a completion.” (Shurz, 167) Clay wanted the nomination so much that he had to take Calhoun’s humiliating words without saying anything. As Schurz explains, “Calhoun assigned to him a place in his church on the bench of the penitents, and the candidate for the presidency took the insult without wincing.” (Shurz, 168)

The speech offended the abolitionists, giving Clay the results he was looking for, distancing himself from them. Clay hoped his speech would increase his support among those he needed to help him garner the nomination. Still it was a turn off to many Northerners. Clay supporters like James G. Birney and John Greenleaf Whittier, who “once idolized Clay, now cast him off as something loathsomely hypocritical.” (Remini, 526) Clay claimed he wasn’t surprised by the response. “My abolition Speech was made after full deliberation,” he told a friend. “I expected it would enrage the Ultra’s more than ever against me, and I have not been disappointed.” (Remini, 527)

Clay should not have been surprised by the negative reaction or the long-term consequences. Before he delivered it, he read it to Senator William C. Preston of South Carolina, and several of his friends and colleagues to get their opinion. They believed that “The speech bears all the marks of that careful weighing of words characteristic of a candidate ‘defining his position’ on a delicate subject.” (Schurz, 164) One of the men believed it could have a negative impact on his presidential prospects, offending both the abolitionists and the pro-slavery factions. Upon hearing this Clay proclaimed the classic phrase he is most remembered for: “I trust the sentiments and opinions are correct, I HAD RATHER BE RIGHT THAN BE PRESIDENT.” Remini describes it as “the immortal utterance, the classic rejoinder, one that quickly entered the lexicon of American politics and was always associated with Clay’s name.” (Remini, 527)

Senator Preston repeated these words in a speech to a Whig rally in Philadelphia the following month announcing the phrase to the public. Then almost immediately Clay’s words were the talk of the nation, the newspapers reprinted his speech, and citizens found it to “noble and patriotic” and appropriate, while critics and “hard-nosed” politicians laughed upon hearing it. (Remini, 527) Clay may have wanted to be right, but he also wanted the Presidency, and his chances were slipping from him.

Soon after the speech, Clay felt the backlash. First Daniel Webster charged that Clay caused the Whigs to lose the 1838 election in Maine, and that the party should instead support a candidate who had more appeal, such as General William Henry Harrison. Webster was deliberately mounting a campaign against Clay, even going as far as to blame him for losing Harrison’s state, Ohio, in the 1838 election. To cap off this crusade, at the Anti-Mason National Convention in November 1839, the group nominated Harrison for President and Webster for Vice-President.

Politicians in the North, Abolitionists, and anti-Masons preferred Harrison as a presidential candidate to Clay. Another candidate who drew support was General Winfield Scott, whose military record was akin to Andrew Jackson’s. Fortunately for Clay, Webster took himself out of the running for the Whig nomination when he departed for England in 1839. Still Clay believed the nomination was his. As he wrote, “Moderation, conciliation, and decision, but above all firmness and decision should be our course. May it be guided by wisdom and lead to victory.” (Remini, 531)

Even before the Whig Convention Clay lost New York. Thurlow Weed, as Brown explains, thought “Clay had gone too far in his attacks [on abolitionists].” (Brown, 145) Both Weed and Thaddeus Stevens were Anti-Mason leaders, and wanted anybody but Clay as the nominee; they devised a plan to strip Clay of his 254-delegate majority.

A friend of Webster’s, Peleg Sprague, introduced a motion that changed the voting. Each state would choose three delegates to a committee, the committee in turn would ask their state which candidate they preferred. A vote would be held in private, and when there was a state consensus, the delegates would report it to the full convention. Clay’s supporters could not stop the motion even through it was obviously designed to strip Clay of the nomination, and soon Clay’s majority melted. Stevens and Weed preferred Harrison to Scott or Clay, but Scott’s candidacy seemed to benefit from their maneuvering. To counter this, Stevens released to the delegates a letter Scott wrote to Francis Granger that appeared favorable to the abolitionists. This was enough to damage Scott’s propsects and give Harrison–the least controversial choice–the nomination. Clay’s chance to capture the Presidency had ended.

Anti-Masons and abolitionists, the two groups Clay alienated with his February 7, 1839 speech, controlled the Whig Party. But Clay, says Remini, “also had a hand in engineering his [own] defeat. His Senate speech on February 7, 1839, against the abolitionists, more than any other single factor, undoubtedly prevented him from gaining a single northern state at the convention ‘except glorious Rhode Island.’ ‘I had rather be right than President,’ Clay had announced. So be it, responded the delegates.” (Remini, 554) Henry Clay would live to regret his words on the Senate floor, because ultimately they caused him to lose the nomination he wanted more than anything.

As we are now reaching a defining moment in the 2008 campaign with Super Tuesday around the corner, another candidate has been compared to Clay. Hillary Clinton has been haunted by her Senate vote for the Iraq war, but has refused to apologize for it, though her position on the war has evolved. In a February 2007 Christian Science Monitor article Daniel Schorr wrote, “Whether that will appease her supporters remains to be seen. What they apparently will not get from her are those three little words. ‘I am sorry.’ What her lack of contrition will cost her, that also remains to be seen…. She may take comfort from the ‘great compromiser,’ Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, who on the Senate floor in 1839 declared, ‘I had rather be right than president.'”

Sources and further reading:

Thomas Brown, Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party, Columbia University Press, 1985.

Henry Clay, The Works of Henry Clay, Barnes & Burr, 1863.

Robert Vincent Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Daniel Schorr, “Will voters accept Hillary Clinton’s nonapology? Her vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq might cost her the presidency,” Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2007.

Carl Schurz, Life of Henry Clay: American Statesmen, Volume: 2, Houghton Mifflin, 1899.

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