Is Mitt Romney the Next James K. Polk?

During the 2008 election, then-Senator Obama seemed eager to draw inspiration from another senator from Illinois – Abraham Lincoln. Mitt Romney’s campaign strategist, Matt Rhoades, recently revealed the Republican candidate’s historical role model: James K. Polk, the president from 1845-1849.

This made Delve wonder: Does the Romney-Polk comparison fit? Polk is known for annexing Texas, winning the Mexican-American war, and snatching from the British the territory that today comprises Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

To find out if Romney is the next Polk, we called up Robert W. Merry, editor of the National Interest and author of Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. Excerpts from the conversation are below.

Delve: Why do you think Romney’s campaign strategist made the Polk comparison?

Robert W. Merry: Polk is famous for establishing very crisply what he wanted to accomplish in his presidency, and then accomplishing it. And in order to do that, he brought a tremendous amount of concentration, effort, organizational skill and manipulative skill to bear. I suspect that Romney’s top aides look at him and see a man similarly focused given his business background and his success with the Olympics. I think they’re looking at all that and they’re saying – “This is a man who is forward moving, focused, organized, and he knows how to manipulate events and people to move things in the right direction and realize goals.”

D: Is it an apt comparison to make?

RM: It’s hard to know. One of the things I say in my new book, Where They Stand, about the American presidency, is that the presidency is such a crucible that we can never really predict how anyone is going to conduct himself or herself in that office. Almost never have the great presidents of our history been perceived as people who were going to be great presidents -- not Lincoln, not FDR or Theodore Roosevelt. Thomas Jefferson had tremendous detractors and liabilities, and yet he ended up being a great president. Same with Andrew Jackson. It’s almost impossible to know if Mitt Romney will be able to bring himself forward in the presidency and become a James K. Polk-like figure. On the other hand, it does seem that in terms of temperament and in terms of the way he operates, one could say that Mitt Romney could at least feel that he is qualified to compare himself to a president like James Polk.

D: Give us a brief history lesson: What should Americans know about Polk’s presidency?  

RM: James K. Polk, unlike most other presidents, is still very much dogged by the controversies and animosities that he generated during his presidency. He was a man who had these goals, and he was not very flexible or warm and fuzzy in his dealings with people as he went about pursuing those goals. Number one, he wanted to reduce tariff rates, which is like reducing taxes today -- it was a huge deal. He wanted to create something called the independent treasury, which was a forerunner to the Fed, and was wrapped up in questions about currency, stability, and a repository for fickle funds. That was a very controversial matter at that time.

He wanted to get all or most of Oregon territory from the Brits. And then he wanted to get California. Anyone who was looking at him carefully would have to know that he wasn’t going to be in a position to acquire California without going to war with Mexico. He accepted that reality. [But he] didn’t really share that reality with the American people when he began to manipulate evens in such a way that led to the war with Mexico.

Given the fact that he manipulated America into a war that ultimately unleashed the slavery issue in American politics with a vengeance, and the fact that he was kind of a character that didn’t really stir a lot of inspiration in people anyway, he has found himself in history the subject of a great deal of lingering controversy.  

D: Polk ran on the promise that he’d only serve one term. Why did he do it? And is it a campaign strategy other candidates should emulate?  

RM: Probably not. Polk is the only president I’m aware of who actually ran on a one-term promise, and then he actually kept his promise. He made that decision because he happened to get the nomination at a time when his party, the Democratic party, was star-studded with very ambitious figures who were absolutely focused on becoming president -- people like Martin Van Buren, Thomas Hart Benton, and John C. Calhoun. His fear was that he wouldn’t get these people sufficiently behind him to win the election if they thought he would likely be in the office for eight years. On the other hand, if he gave a four-year promise, then they had four years to prepare themselves for the next big election battle. So he made a very calculated political decision and it served him well: He beat Henry Clay somewhere in the neighborhood of 36,000 votes. Had he not done that, he very likely would have lost.

D: If Polk were around today, what would he make of the Romney comparison?

RM: He’d probably be flattered that anybody would look at his presidency as a model for a modern 21st century White House tenure. He’d probably say, “Well, it’s not going to be easy to be like me, because not very many presidents can accomplish as much as I did – even though much of it was somewhat controversial. But if anybody wants to be like me, more power to them.”

D: Do we need a president like Polk to lead us today?

RM: [Historian] Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in an introduction of a biography of James Polk, talks about the presidents who have been consequential presidents even in the absence of great crisis. He mentions in particular James Polk and Theodore Roosevelt. He made the point that a great crisis, whether it’s a war or depression, can give a president an opportunity to shine by navigating successfully and brilliantly through that crisis. [But] in times of non-crisis, it’s still possible for a president to bring his will, wile, smarts and fortitude to bear in order to make significant change. And James Polk is one of those [presidents]. [But] this is not one of those times. The country is in a time of a crisis, and needs really powerful presidential leadership. It needs an FDR type of leadership, it needs an Abraham Lincoln type of leadership. So it’s one thing to compare yourself to Polk if you’re trying to become president in times when we aren’t in crisis, say during the Bill Clinton period. But in our time, we can’t afford to have a president who simply gets through four or eight years. He has to be someone who will leave the country with these major problems we have significantly rectified.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.