Friday, October 29, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part VI: Election 1860


One hundred fifty years ago, our ancestors were going to the polls during an election season far more contentious than the current one could ever dream of being, Glenn Beck's histrionics to the contrary. The four-way scrum that was the campaign of 1860 was coming to a close. But here's the odd thing: even though on paper we see four campaigns vying for the Presidency, only in a handful of cases were all four competing head-to-head. Because of the sectional nature of the parties in this election, it came down to two-way, or at most three-way races, depending on where you were. This election featured another novelty: two technologies were coming of age that would, between them, change the way elections were conducted forever.

But first, the contestants.

We've already covered the fratricidal Democratic convention of 1860, that produced two nominees for President: Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge, representing the Northern and Southern wings of the party, respectively. And we've already covered the Republican convention of 1860, where the "dark horse" candidacy of Abraham Lincoln sprang from out of nowhere to seize the nomination. The fourth party in the fray was the Constitutional Union party, whose motto was "The Constitution As It Was, And The Union As It Was." They were the part of status-quo compromise, and they nominated John Bell from Tennessee as their candidate for President.

The Constitutional Union party was an interesting outfit. Basically, their goal wasn't to get John Bell elected President so much as it was to gain enough electoral votes that none of the other candidates could secure a clear majority of the Electoral College. In short, they were running as spoilers, but spoilers with a purpose. Their real goal was to throw the election into the House of Representatives, where they hoped cooler heads might prevail. It was an interesting theory.

Three of the four candidates ran a more or less traditional campaign for the day. Their candidates stayed home, while their men in each state went on the stump to give speeches. Lincoln stayed in Illinois for the most part. Breckenridge, as Buchanan's Vice President, stayed in Washington. Bell stayed at home in Tennessee. Stephen Douglas, however, did no such thing. Douglas hit the rails.

Of all the campaigns, the Northern wing of the Democratic party was the only one to mount a truly national campaign, and Douglas went out on the stump himself, trying to gather support. Ten years prior, this would never have been possible; but now, enough rail lines had been built to connect most of the country's major cities. Now, a candidate actually could canvass the length and breadth of the land. It was a grueling ordeal for Douglas, but he could at least claim to be the first to have done it. For the rest, Bell concentrated his efforts on the border states between North and South, while Breckenridge and Lincoln concentrated on the South and the North, respectively. So, in the North, you generally had a two-way race between Lincoln and Douglas, with a few old Whigs backing Bell. In the South, you had a two-way race between Douglas and Breckenridge, with (again) a few old whigs pulling for Bell. Only in the middle did you have a no-holds-barred full-contact four-way brawl. And, the funny thing was, the border states wanted none of it.

On November 6, 1860, the people went to the polls to decide the matter. And here is where the other new technology came into play. In years prior, it might take months to know who won an election. This is why the Electoral College doesn't even meet until two months after the election. They had to allow enough time for the votes to reach the county seats to be counted. Then they had to wait for the votes to reach the State capitals to be counted. Then the votes had to make it to Washington ... But that had all changed. With the telegraph, news could cross the land as fast as a spark could race down the wire. Mind you, the official tally would still take time to collate and send in; but an unofficial count would serve just as well to let you know how it's going to shake out. By and large, at least in the major cities, when their morning papers were delivered on November 7, citizens knew who had won.

The distribution of votes was interesting, and showed pretty clearly how people were thinking. Douglas only won two states, New Jersey and Missouri. In Missouri, his popular sovereignty platform resonated. But no one else was interested. Bell's Constitutional Union party won in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. This makes sense, when you realize that the Constitutional Union party was the choice for people who wanted to avoid war at all costs. The border states knew all too well who'd be hosting that party. Lincoln took every state north of Bell's winnings except only Maryland, and he also took Oregon and California. Breckenridge took the rest.

When the dust cleared, Lincoln took the lead, with 180 electoral votes. Breckenridge won only 72, Bell had taken 39, with Douglas winning 12.

The Fire-Eaters' worst fears had come to life. Come March 4 of 1861, Abraham Lincoln would be sworn in as the sixteenth President of the United States. In each of the Southern states, calls went out for a state convention, to consider bills of secession. The conventions would convene towards the middle of November, and tender their results sometime in December.

The match had now been lit and dropped. The fuse was burning.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Election 2010: You Fail Civics Forever

Over at the site TV Tropes, you'll find a whole mess of stuff. Nominally, at least, it's about storytelling tropes. It's ended up containing that, and a whole lot more. Some of my favorite lists on the site are along the lines of "You Fail (blank) Forever", containing examples of epic failures of understanding in such diverse fields as Engineering, Nuclear Physics, History, and Biology.

They do not yet have a You Fail Civics Forever page. They should start one:

How anyone with a functional reading knowledge of the English language can read, "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion" and NOT see a clear separation of Church and State is, quite frankly, beyond me. But that's the Tea Party for you: volkisch religious populists pretending to be libertarians. They're already showing the signs of learning the wrong lessons from November, and November isn't even here yet.

In any case, the election is upon us. It's still eleven days off, but I'm comfortable enough with the tools we have to make a few predictions. Last time, the numbers were pretty solid as far as three weeks out, after all. Courtesy of Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight, and the bettors at Intrade, here are the numbers:

Senate: Democrats keep the Senate, 52-48, 58% chance
House of Representatives: Republicans win control, 230-204, 90% chance

Which means that nothing much is going to get done on the legislative front, unless it's got true, broad bi-partisan appeal. Gridlock is the way to bet, I think. The House Republicans may feel bold enough to play political "chicken" and risk a government shutdown by stalling spending bills. That won't work any better for them than it did for them in the '90s, but they'll probably try anyway.

Still, gridlock isn't the worst thing in the world that could happen. Consider this from a business person's perspective. The last few years have held nothing but upheavals. The rules have been totally re-written in terms of health care coverage, and in rules governing financial markets. While it's true that good and valuable legislation doesn't get passed under gridlock, it's also true that the rules stop changing, and that can be a good thing. It removes uncertainty. It allows you to plan ahead with more confidence and certainty. At least, slightly cynical small-L libertarians like myself tend to see things that way.

And things are primed for a recovery. The news we hear out of Wall Street these days are full of really good earnings reports. You may grind your teeth when you compare this with the pretty lousy job reports ... but remember, this is how it was playing out in the early '90s, too. This is the last step in the economic cycle, right before the recovery and expansion really get moving. All that's needed is a bit of respite from horribly bad news.

And here's where I think that the Tea Party is going to learn the wrong lesson from the election. They think the election is a referendum on Obama's policies, when it's really a referendum on current economic conditions, which still pretty much stink if you're looking for work. And they think that 2012 will be more of the same, when it'll really be a referendum on prevailing economic conditions twenty-four months from now. It's all about the economy. Ideology has nothing to do with it. But ideologues will never, ever understand that. Which is why, come 2012, the Tea Party is liable to run the wrong campaign for the wrong election.

With that in mind, I'll make a long-range prediction for the next election cycle. Come Spring 2012, if unemployment is significantly down, if business is doing well, and if there aren't any horrifying disasters on the foreign front, Obama wins re-election in a cake-walk. If we're still in the doldrums, he gets turfed ignominiously.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Election 2010: Race for Texas Governor

The race for Governor of Texas is underway, and the loser has to take the job.

I'm joking, of course, but only slightly. Newcomers from other states don't always understand how little the Governorship actually matters here, coming as they do from states where Governors actually wield considerable independent authority. The Governor of Texas is, comparatively, a very weak position. The Lieutenant Governor is the person who actually has the job of presiding over the Legislature, and has considerable powers to influence legislation. The Governor's powers are mostly those of persuasion, and he is therefore largely dependent upon how much cooperation he gets from the independently-elected Lieutenant Governor.

There are three candidates worth mentioning, although in practice only the first two matter. The incumbent, Rick Perry, is running on the Republican ticket. Bill White, the former mayor of Houston, is running on the Democratic ticket. And Kathie Glass, a Houston lawyer, is running on the Libertarian ticket.

Rick Perry has not been an incompetent Governor. This is damning with faint praise, since a circus chimp could probably be trained to do the job. As I've said before, you could probably shave an ape and sew him into a Brooks Brothers suit, then shove him into the Governor's office, and it might be months before anyone noticed. He's done some pretty appalling things, like speaking favorably of secession, and quashing an investigation into the possible innocence of a man on Death Row. It would be a grand thing indeed if he got turfed come November.

Bill White is probably the strongest candidate the Democrats have run for Governor in ... well, quite some time. He's got a solid record as a businessman, and therefore cannot be easily attacked as anti-business. He had a good record as a three-term mayor of Houston, and probably would have been re-elected had he not been term-limited. And the race is a lot closer now than many would have predicted. White is running on Perry's fiscal record as Governor. Arguably, the Governor has damn-all to do with state fiscal policy; we do, after all, have a Comptroller as yet another elected office. Even so, it's been a fairly effective tactic. It's a fairly tight race as of late October. Intrade is giving Perry a 63% chance of victory. It was in the 80s and 90s as of a few months ago.

I know next to nothing about Kathie Glass, except that she's an attorney and a Libertarian. But since Satan will probably drive to work in a snowplow before she gets anywhere close to double-digits, it hardly matters.

The election is on Tuesday, November 2nd. Vote early, and vote often!

Friday, October 01, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part V: Secession


By early October of 1860, the four-way race for the Presidency was nearing its close. Several of the Southern states had made it plain that they would secede from the Union if a Republican were elected. Two questions were at the forefront: would they, and could they? For the first, many in the North thought that the pronouncements coming from the cotton states were just election-year bluster. For the other... The Constitution has this to say, explicitly, about the legality of secession:

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the nub of the problem.

The Founders honestly never imagined the question coming up. It was only by union and concerted action that they had wrested their freedom from Britain at all. As small, independent entities they were sure they'd be gobbled up, piecemeal. So, while they were very careful to detail the procedures for new territories joining up, they neglected to consider the possibility that any would bolt the fold, once inside. And for fifty years, near enough, they were right.

The question weighed heavily on peoples' minds that autumn. Is it legal, or not? There are two broad approaches to the question, one Constitutional and one based on contracts, and each one can be argued pro or con.

First, there's the fact that the Constitution has nothing explicit to say on the matter. Most American jurisdictions draw their legal traditions from English Common Law, and as such, unless something is expressly prohibited, it's permissible by default. By this line of reasoning, the fact that it's not specifically prohibited meant that secession was perfectly legal.

But there's another Constitutional argument in play. If you interpret the Preamble as having the force of law, the phrase "to form a more perfect Union" implies an indivisible Union, since an indivisible Union is clearly more perfect than a divisible one. Further, one of the Anti-Federalist arguments against adoption of the Constitution was that such a strong Federal goverment implied a perpetual Union, posing a threat to State sovereignty.

Another argument flows from the nature of contracts. Some contracts can be terminated at will by either party. Some hold that the accession of a State to the Union follows this model, and any State is free to exercise it's sovereign prerogative at any time. But there's a counter-argument here, too; some contracts require both parties' agreement to end, like marriage. Under this interpretation, the accession of a State is an agreement between the State and Congress. Both would have to agree in order to sever their connection.

But an even larger point loomed, that even the most ardent Fire-Eater would be compelled to take notice of. What about the property to which the Federal government held clear title? Customs houses, armories, forts and the like?

No one was thinking about those yet. They should have. They would come to regret this oversight, in months and years to come.